Preaching what People Need, Instead of Preaching what they Want

When John the Baptist heralded the coming Messiah, he was preaching a pretty simple sermon. Apparently it was pretty hard to follow.
“In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ” (Matthew 3:1-3 NIV) John the Baptist was a fascinating character. He didn’t approach religion the same way the established teachers did.

His sermons were direct, convicting, and powerful, full of exhortations and pointed advice about reform. In his preaching he called the religious Pharisees a “brood of vipers” and he challenged his listeners to humble themselves before God, confess their sin, and turn away from it. He didn’t teach in the Temple in Jerusalem, as did the outstanding Rabbis of the day, but he lived out in the wilderness, preaching far away from the centers of commerce and power. He dressed in rustic simplicity and ate locusts and wild honey. He didn’t unpack Scripture, he exhorted people with it. He prophesied. In spite of his apparent eccentricity, large crowds came to hear him preach and many stepped forward to take the radical step of baptism, signifying that they hungered to commit to the Lord in a new way. When asked who he was, he quoted Isaiah 40:3: “He said: “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Although he was sent to prepare the way of the Lord, his message was simple: “REPENT, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” John didn’t call for the overthrow of government, no matter how much they hated Roman occupation. He didn’t call for a new building. And he didn’t advocate revolution or reformation to prepare for the Kingdom. He called for personal repentance. He knew that for the kingdom of heaven to be present anywhere, it first had to be present in the hearts of those who hungered to see it. Is it present in yours? I think we all avoid repentance a little bit, and associate it with wild-eyed Mystics holding signs by the road. But probably, if you’re honest, you are doing something in your life that is taking you down the wrong path–something motivated by pride, or selfishness, or greed… If John the Baptist showed up in your neighborhood, would you go listen? Would you like his preaching?Would you repent? The very Kingdom of Heaven is waiting! Confess. Turn away from your sin. Make straight the path of the Lord.

Of all the sermons ever preached,
From all the sinners ever reached,
There's just one message you should hear,
So let me make this crystal clear:
(Jesus preached this, so did Paul;
Stephen, Peter, really all 
Great preachers throughout history
Have emphasized this mystery.)
Every preacher God has sent
Said this: Repent. Repent. REPENT!
I'm pretty sure that's what they meant.

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The Obedient God: Something from Jesus’ Childhood that Might Surprise You

Hidden away in Luke’s comments about Jesus as a boy is a nugget you should not miss: Luke tells the story of the Obedient God.
“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them. Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them…” (Luke 2:49-51 NIV) Yesterday we talked about this passage from Luke, which gives us pretty much everything we know about the years between Jesus’ childhood and manhood. Here are a few final thoughts on Jesus as a boy… Remember, this is God with skin on, the Son of God, the Messiah who has been foretold. Surely he was no average twelve-year-old… What was he like? How did he exercise his power? If he was alive today, surely he’d be an NFL quarterback, right? There is so little in Scripture to go on about Jesus’ boyhood, and it’s tempting to try to reconstruct some things, but it is always important to let Scripture be Scripture, and allow the story to speak for itself. Luke 2:52 says that Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” He was growing in a balanced way; and the Bible basically says that his development was apparently fairly normal.

 

I love the fact that Luke points out how Jesus grew in four dimensions: mentally, physically, spiritually and socially. He wasn’t some spiritual nerd who didn’t live in the real world, but there was a balance in his growth that encompassed intelligence, strength, and his relationship with both God and men. That’s probably a good template for goal-setting when we start jotting down those New Year’s resolutions… As for this story, the fact that he slipped away and stayed at the temple caught both Mary and Joseph a bit by surprise. I’m sure he was normally very obedient, and this was new behavior. Jesus was exploring some independence at age 12, and apparently knew an impressive amount of Scripture and was able to teach about the principles it contained. He knew enough, according to Luke, to astonish learned men. Since his own parents were surprised by what he was saying about doing his Father’s business, it makes sense to assume that this was not behavior they were yet accustomed to. The Son of God was leaving boyhood behind, and stepping out onto a larger stage. He knew who his Father was, and was already connected to his mission. Those are all pretty impressive qualities to exhibit at only twelve. Luke’s short account of twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple makes it clear that Jesus was destined for greater things; but that last phrase in verse 49 about how he treated his parents kinda sneaks up on you. “He was obedient to them.” Apparently even the King of Kings obeyed his mom and dad. Young people take note: If God with skin on obeyed his parents, so should you.

 

Our culture loves the shallow things,
And all the toys celebrity brings:
The bling, the cars, the diamond rings,
The cash register when it cha-chings!
But Jesus grew up mentally,
And physically, and socially.
He also grew up spiritually,
In ways you could and could not see.
You'd think that Jesus had it made,
The power of God in man displayed--
And yet the hand that Jesus played
Was this: the Son of God obeyed.
He didn't try to take command,
He didn't overplay his hand,
But followed what His Father planned:
Obey. Be humble. Understand
That life in all its parts can be much greater than the sum;
And greatness doesn't celebrate before its hour is come.
The key to life is not what is expedient,
But this: know what God wants, and be obedient.

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His Amazed Parents Must Have Said, “I Thought He was With YOU”!

When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they (too) were amazed… (Luke 2:42-48 NIV)

This is the only anecdote Luke shared about the boy Jesus, the only real scrap of information we have about his formative years. I have always wondered how he became aware of his supernatural capacity. Did it happen all at once, or bit by bit? Certainly he was commissioned for public ministry at John’s baptism, but we are not really given clarity about when he knew who he was and why he came. This story offers a couple of clues: first, at age 12 he demonstrated wisdom and comprehension beyond his years, which amazed the teachers at the temple. Men who were able to teach in the temple courts had generally spent a lifetime in the Scriptures and studying at the feet of other rabbis, so the fact that Jesus could astonish such men was no small thing. But interestingly, it says in verse 48 that when his parents saw him, “they were [also] amazed”, meaning perhaps they had not really seen such precocity in their son before now… When Jesus told them he must be about his Father’s business, Luke says in verse 50, “they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them.” This incident at the temple was new information to Mary and Joseph, and therefore was new behavior on their son’s part. I like to think that Jesus enjoyed a fairly normal childhood, playing and learning and growing alongside his brothers and sisters, that his formative years were full of joy and growth and love. (And yes, Jesus had siblings. Mark 3:21 and 31 speak of his mother and brothers seeking him, and in Mark 6:3, the people from the village ask, “Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?”) Jesus grew up in fairly large family, playing with his brothers and sisters. Perhaps they played hide and seek in the village, or chunked rocks at a nearby stream. Somehow I think that his early years connected him with his creation, deepened his compassion for mankind, and contributed to the love and resolve that later carried him through his mission. Russ Massey taught logically that if Joseph died fairly soon after this happened, then Jesus would have assumed (as the eldest son) familial responsibilities, helping Mary run the household, and assumed some of the burdens of running a family. But I hope that in the years leading up to this he had carefree moments of play and laughter as well, bathed in the love of parents who knew all too well how special he was, waiting and watching to see how the prophesies would come true. This “I thought he was with you” trip to Jerusalem was probably Mary and Joseph’s first big “Aha!” moment that the Time was getting closer at hand, and that Jesus truly was gifted in ways that had been foretold. I wonder if it changed their relationship with him, and what they began to learn about him from that point going forward… When was your first big “Aha!” moment about Jesus? Has it changed your relationship with him, and is there something more you can learn from him going forward? When you see him in a new way, you’ll discover who He really is (like Joseph and Mary, and the guys at the temple) Perhaps you, too, will be amazed!

 

"I thought he was with YOU!" Or, "Wow, we thought he was with THEM!"
But here they were, a long day's travel from Jerusalem,
And Jesus wasn't there. Joseph and Mary turned around
And searched for several days before their precious son was found.
They found him in the temple, calmly sitting there unfazed,
Reasoning with the elders. Everybody was amazed
At all the wisdom he displayed, when all was said and done:
A page had turned. His parents knew his mission had begun...

 

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Mary Treasured Jesus in her Heart. God Treasures You the Same Way

Out of the several accounts of the life of Jesus, only Luke offers us this quick observation: Mary Treasured Jesus. That’s a logical thing to say about how a mother would feel about her child, but it speaks volumes about Mary and Jesus. It might also speak volumes about YOU. After twelve year old Jesus had been left behind in Jerusalem and was found teaching in the temple, Luke offers us our only glimpse of his childhood and development:
“Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” (Luke 2:51-52 NIV) It’s a little intriguing to think about Jesus as a boy, and we can speculate about what he must have been like. Comedians have always joked that it must have been tough being Jesus’ sibling, since you would always hear, “Why can’t you be like Jesus? HE behaves!”

And in the Apocryphal gospel of Thomas the boy Jesus is depicted as performing some whimsical miracles, which is probably why that book stayed apocryphal and didn’t become part of the Canon. But in point of fact, not much is written about the boy Jesus, except for Luke’s anecdote about Jesus staying behind at the temple at age 12 while his parents headed back to Galilee…Jesus was obviously gifted as a teacher and amazed the scribes and rabbis in the temple; but most of his amazing qualities were kept private, just as Mary “treasured all these things in her heart”. If you are a mom or dad, aunt or uncle, or friend of the family, perhaps you have spent time around a toddler or a small child. Think of being amazed at their development. Think of being overwhelmed by little things they do, from imitating you to discovering something with wide-eyed wonder… What things have you observed in little ones and treasured in your heart? Mary knew all of those things about Jesus and she treasured them. Since we are made in our Father’s image, it stands to reason that God feels the same way about us; He watches our development, he sees us grow from spiritual babes into spiritual toddlers, and he treasures us in his heart. Have you ever equated how your Heavenly Father feels about you with the way you cherish an infant, or laugh out loud at a toddler’s antics? I bet He takes the same delight in you, and is just as interested in your growth and development. Your picture is in His wallet; your crude but well-meaning artwork is on His refrigerator. God loves us not just for who we are but also for who we will become as we trust Him to help us navigate our path in a complex and fallen world. Certainly He enjoys our growth the same way we love seeing our children and grandchildren grow. Luke says that Jesus grew in four dimensions: mentally, physically, spiritually and socially. Like you, Jesus grew up in the real world. Like you, he was treasured, appreciated, and loved. That’s probably a good thing to remember as we head into the New Year. Treasure those things in your heart, and grow.

 

Mary watched as Jesus grew, and marveled at the things he knew;
From the humble manger's start, she treasured Jesus in her heart,
Like any mother's heart would do. Did you know someone treasures you?
One who loves to watch you grow, desires to teach you all they know,
One who loves with all His might, and watches you with great delight!
He loves you now, & every minute; His wallet has your picture in it!
He adores your every move, and offers you a Father's love.
By every way it can be measured, understand this: You. Are. Treasured

 

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Decisions, decisions: This Christmas business was Tougher than you Think

Before and after Jesus was born, Joseph had some tough decisions to make. In our previous post we discussed the decision to flee from Bethlehem to go all the way to Egypt. Imagine Joseph and Mary in Egypt, away from friends and family, forced to become refugees in a strange land. Then this: “After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

“So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:19-23 NIV) Joseph’s relationship with God was not limited to the pre-Advent announcement about his first son. Obviously, he had to deal with issues that were beyond the scope of most typical First-century Jewish husbands and fathers, and he had to make some tough decisions. He had to deal with 1) a bride who was pregnant before the wedding; 2) the messengers of God coming to him with directions; 3) a pretty dicey political situation, what with the local king trying to kill his son and all; and yeah,4) he had to make some pretty difficult travel arrangements under adverse circumstances. Then he and Mary also had to decide where to live, and how to raise the Son of God who had been placed under their care. They still had to evaluate neighborhoods and make assessments about what was happening and where to live. I think it’s interesting that, even under the protection of the Most High, Joseph and Mary still had to make decisions about where to go; they still had to take action to be obedient. They had been warned of Herod’s treachery and had to get up at night and escape to Egypt, to live among strangers in a strange land. It doesn’t say they were told HOW to do those things.They were certainly vulnerable and in danger, but they trusted God and responded to His word. I’m sure that those weeks were lonely and fearful, and that there were moments of doubt and uncertainty for the young couple as they began their life together. Perhaps there is something in their story for us. A walk with God is not a magical Union that takes place in spiritual realms; it is a journey through hard times in an uncertain world where bad things can happen. I think it’s instructive that Mary and Joseph 1) listened to God’s word to them; 2) made decisions based on what He said; and 3) demonstrated obedience to God by acting upon his instruction. You think maybe we could learn from that? If it worked for Joseph and Mary, maybe it would work for us.

I hope these dreams are who they say they are;
We've left our family, and we've traveled far
To live down here in Egypt. It's been rough,
(As if this birth had not been hard enough!)
So now we have to take a different tack;
The angel says that we should travel back!
Judea isn't safe; so, where to go?
I guess when we get closer, we will know...
But Mary is amazing. We will make it,
And if God has some more advice, we'll take it.
We are strangers living in this land--
Something that I never would have planned--
But we have both obeyed the Lord's command:
So in Him we will trust, and take our stand.

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The Untold Christmas story: Death, Danger; Fear, Flight and Faith

After you have celebrated the Nativity scene, the angels’ announcement, and the birth of Jesus, it is time to consider what Christmas was all about for Mary and Joseph.
“When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:12-15, NIV). The Christmas story doesn’t end with the Nativity. It begins there. For Joseph and Mary, it meant a hasty departure under cover of darkness to a strange land. It meant hard travel in open country with a young mother and an infant whom Herod was seeking to kill…

Come to think of it, it had to be a scary trip, maybe the scariest road trip experience of all time. Yes, there was an aging and jealous king trying to eliminate a potential threat to his throne, but it wasn’t just Herod who wanted the baby dead. Paul reminded us in Ephesians 6:12 “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places…” Not only Herod, but every dark power in this world had to be uneasy, sensing this sudden goodness which was now present on planet earth. Surely every evil force could feel a shudder of its own death knell, and stirred blindly and restlessly, reacting with vague disquiet against God’s work in the world. Against a creepier background than any horror film could conjure up, Joseph took his little family in the dead of night and set out for Egypt. Behind the holy family, Bethlehem was about to experience the slaughter of the innocents; before them lay a long and uncertain journey to Egypt. Satan has never been omniscient, or surely he would have known who this baby was in advance, and ended the Christmas story at the manger… But the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of evil. Undoubtedly, through the millennia Satan was anticipating the arrival of a coming king, and was ready to do battle with God’s royal emissary and savior; perhaps, like the Pharisees, he was looking for a majestic, powerful king who would come heralded in glory, ready to fight the Romans. He certainly worked hard in the courts of both Judean kings and Roman emperors (and most royal houses throughout history), using ego and treachery to corrupt and contaminate almost everyone who attained a position of strength. Winston Churchill, who was a pretty astute chronicler of history, said “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The devil has been pretty effective at corrupting leaders (he’s still doing it today), but Satan did not foresee God’s unusual plan. God chose weakness to confound strength. He heralded not a military kingdom but a spiritual one. Against all logic, He sent humility to oppose power. God chose a frail baby to end an evil empire based on selfishness and pride; and He sent Jesus to begin a new kingdom based on peace and love. And guess where it starts, the day after Christmas? Look no further than your own heart…

Forced to flee in the dead of night, 
Joseph had disturbing dreams
Which warned him that they must take flight
From Herod's mad and murderous schemes.

Commanded by his jealous word,
Assassins through their village crept,
And performed their duties undeterred
As mothers wailed and fathers wept.

But Herod's minions missed the mark,
As Joseph took his wife and infant son
Traveling hard to safety in the dark:
Their long and dangerous journey had begun.

And every evil power on this earth
Was restless as it sensed this new-born king,
Uneasy since the announcement and the birth,
Uncertain of the changes it would bring.

The powers of darkness felt the child's great good,
Felt the Spirit around him as it flowed,
And stirred to end this danger, if they could,
From the family alone, out on the open road...

 

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The Gift that keeps on Giving: Who Says Christmas Only Comes Once a Year?

Christmas is all about giving and opening gifts! It is a tradition that goes back to the gifts of the Magi, which were presented to Jesus as a young child sometime after he was born. Some folks relate it to Saturnalia, a pagan Roman festival which pre-dated the birth of Christ, and which was supplanted by the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth. Since people gave each other small gifts during that winter festival, the custom was appropriated by early Church Fathers. (Although some Christians today refuse to celebrate because of those early roots, but I say, why let the devil have all festivals? It’s ok to celebrate the birth of Christ and give gifts!) Which gift will be your favorite this year?

We commemorate the actions of the Magi in Matthew 2:11: “And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Gifts are a wonderful part of our Christmas celebration. But as you open your presents today, remember that there are gifts, and there are GIFTS: There is the gift of life. There is the gift of love. And then there’s this: “For the wages of sin is death; but the GIFT of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23, KJV). “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the GIFT of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9, KJV). “But the free GIFT is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the GIFT by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded unto many.” (Romans 5:15, NIV) “For God so loved the world that he GAVE his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16, KJV) No matter where you are and no matter what your circumstances today, never forget that Christmas is not about toys or things. It’s about new life. And it’s about a new KIND of life. To me, eternal life is an attitude that not only transcends time and space but it begins here and now! I like to think it is what Gus McCrae meant in “Lonesome Dove”: “It ain’t dying I’m talking about, it’s living. I doubt it matters where you die, but it matters where you LIVE.”

This year, don’t limit Christmas gifts to a single day. Celebrate it all year long! Embrace life wherever you are. Live with an awareness of the gifts that matter. Don’t get so caught up in your new iPhone that you miss the greatest gift of all! Merry Christmas!

A Christmas Rhyme
Sing Hosanna, peace on earth! Celebrate the Savior’s birth!
As Angels sing, Rejoice with them! This baby, born in Bethlehem,
Made every earthly power shift, and offered us His matchless gift.
Give “Peace on earth” and spread “Good Cheer”! But tell me, if this isn’t clear:
Since Jesus showed that “God came near”, why celebrate just once a year?
In winter, summer, spring, and fall, open the greatest gift of all—
At home, abroad, at work or play—Celebrate Christmas every day!
Whenever you recall this rhyme: it’s Him, it’s you, it’s Christmas time!

 

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Magi: There’s a Reason why They call Them the “Wise Men”

“After they [the Magi] had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose 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, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matthew 2:9-12, NIV) Most Nativity scenes show 3 wise men at the manger, and Christmas lore is rich with images of and legends about them. The Magi are a fascinating part of the Christmas story, with their camels and trappings and gifts, and they deserve some study because of their place in the series of events spoken of in Matthew. They are mysterious figures, thought by some to be kings of Persia, or possibly Zoroastrian priests who studied the stars as part of their religion. It has also been suggested that perhaps they descended from Jews who had been exiled to Persia but rose to positions of prominence, (think: Daniel, or perhaps Esther and Mordecai) which might explain their familiarity with OT prophecy about the Messiah. We sometimes forget that the ancients had clearer views of the night skies than we do (no city lights to cloud their view), and plenty of time on their hands (no sitcoms or prime time TV to distract them). The average shepherd probably knew as much about the position and movement of the heavens as some current astronomers do, and the Magi grew up studying the stars religiously. Trivia facts about them: 1. Nowhere does the Bible mention only 3 wise men; there are 3 gifts, brought by Magi. 2. It is highly unlikely that there were 3 guys traveling on camels. With gifts of such value, there had to be a group large enough to protect itself, and they probably had some soldiers or cavalry with them… (Might why Matthew says “Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him”. A large party of armed men made folks nervous in those days.)

3. They didn’t make it to the manger. At the time of Christ’s birth, they were probably approaching Jerusalem to talk to Herod. 4. Lots of folks have tried to associate the star with a known astronomical event, and there may have been one initially; but at the end, since the star rose and led them to the child, it is likely that it was a unique manifestation, such as God’s radiance in the Shekinah, that provided guidance for the last leg of their journey. 5. They saw not a baby, but a young child (clear difference in the original Greek), and came to a house, not a stable. Jesus was weeks if not months old when they presented their gifts… 6. The tradition of our Christmas gift giving comes at least partially from the gifts of the Magi. Like them, we should bring what we have and lay it at the feet of Jesus! 7. Joseph isn’t mentioned here, which doesn’t mean he wasn’t around, just that he wasn’t mentioned. (He is around later when Jesus is 12 and they find him teaching in the temple). Finally, after seeing the young boy and worshipping him, they returned home by another route. My BSU Director Glen Norris used to teach the version of the Bible that said, “They went home another way.” He always maintained that anyone who really meets Jesus, and truly worships Him, will be fundamentally changed by that experience, and go home “another way”. So the wise men not only took another route, they became different types of men, fulfilled by faith and encouraged by events. As result, they went home with new perspective, new motivation, and new direction. My Christmas prayer is that our world could open the true gift of Christmas and do the same thing. As you reflect on the origins of Christmas, may you, too, be wise…

(Even though the Magi may have been accompanied by cavalry, there were probably some camels along, and it is entirely possible that the tradition of camel transport still makes sense. So that is where this poem came from…)

The Camel

Slow he rises! Hideous, hairy: hollowly he plods his course,
His hump-backed and misshapen body carries its express remorse.
Glaring eyes with bushy eyebrows--stinking, spitting ugly beast!
Of all mankind's domestic creatures, he must be the very least.
Men for centuries have mocked him: used, abused him without care-
Silently he bears their scorn, ungainly walks the earth aware
Of comfort in his secret: "Fools! These men will never know
That once I heard the baby's cry, saw where the star did go,
And brought my Magi bearing gifts, and watched them bowing low."

 

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A Deeper Look at Herod: He’s Really Obviously Depraved

“When [Herod] had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah 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 shepherd my people Israel.’ (Matthew 2:4-6, NIV). Herod acted like he was helping these wise men from the East, but he was actually trying to use them for his own ends. Probably because of his declining health, Herod stayed and sent them to find out where the Christ was located so that he could then eliminate this new threat to his throne. We’ll look at the Wise Men a little closer tomorrow. But, “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18, NIV). This is when the birth of Jesus started getting REAL, ya’ll. Herod murdered a bunch of young boys in Bethlehem, just playing the odds and assuming that he would catch this newborn king among them.

He chose two years and under because some time had passed since he sent the Magi to Bethlehem and then waited for their return, so a number of babies were killed in his attempt to eliminate the threat to his power. Reliable estimates suggest anywhere from six to twenty children would have been murdered by Herod’s men. (Hmm, I wonder if these men covered their identities and wielded swords.) This despicable act—not so different than some of the things we read about in the paper today—became known as “the slaughter of the innocents”, and has been questioned by historians because it was not widely mentioned in extra-Biblical sources. However, historian R. T. France, addressing the story’s absence in “Antiquities of the Jews”, argues that “the murder of a few infants in a small village [is] not on a scale to match the more spectacular assassinations recorded by Josephus”. After all, Herod killed people who were well known in Jerusalem—including his wife, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and three of his own sons—so the act of killing a few unknown infants out in a small village may not have been front page news at the time… This event is still today one of the main things we remember about Herod the Great—and one of the great tragedies connected with the birth of Jesus. Yes, his birth is good news, tidings of great joy. But amazingly enough, a baby who could save the world and who would teach nothing but love had evil and implacable foes, men who would kill rather than acknowledge him. I’ve always felt like the persistent hatred and vitriol about Christ (don’t people use his name to swear?) actually validates his identity. If he was just a passing nobody, he would have been forgotten long ago, as forgotten as the Scribes and Pharisees who argued with him in the temple. The fact that so many folks from both now and then resist him so vehemently makes me think that there are larger spiritual stakes involved, and that he must have been something more than a pretty good rabbi. There was passionate resistance against Jesus, enemies who would twist words and commit murder to keep him from fulfilling his mission. There were men who bristled at the very name of Jesus, who didn’t want it mentioned or valued. Amazingly enough, there still are! This Christmas season, people here in America are demanding that manger scenes be removed, and that Christ be taken out of Christmas. After all these years, men are still trying to eliminate the baby Jesus. Some things, it seems, never change…

 

The winter had been hard; so when they showed up at the gate,
Armed to the teeth and sitting horse, of course I made them wait.
Their coming caught us all off guard. And yet they brought that news,
Something about a star they'd seen, and a new king of the Jews...
My counselors confirmed the Scriptures also contained some clues:
The rumor was, a king would rise somewhere in Bethlehem;
I must admit my humor was not the best it's ever been,
Confronted with these Magi and their horses, and their men...
But I kept my composure, sent them out, told them to bring 
Me any information they could find about this king--
This tiny new usurper who would dare to steal my throne!
My family learned when they could not leave well enough alone,
That Herod is not pleased with other applicants to his court:
I'll see to it this infant's reign--just like his life--is short.
This little king, his family and all the world will learn
How Herod treats his rivals, when the Wise Men all return...

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Real People. Real Christmas. Real Intrigue and Danger.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him…” (Matthew 2:1-3, NIV) The Magi, who studied the heavens and knew something about the arrival of a new king of the Jews, came “from the east” to find out about this newly born king… Naturally they went first to the current king in Jerusalem, Herod the Great—a cruel man who was known for levying high taxes and building the temple. He was in perhaps the last year of his reign, dying from gonorrhea and possibly cancer. He had a long, tumultuous reign filled with treachery and murder. He not only executed his wife, Miriamme, but her mother Alexandra as well. He had two of his brother-in-laws killed, and also executed his own sons Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater. He was so jealous of his throne that at one point it prompted Augustus to say, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son” (a reference to the fact that the pig had a better chance for survival than a son, since Herod’s household didn’t eat pork). Matthew’s description of Herod’s reaction to the Magi is intriguing. While there is much to explore about the Magi, it is also interesting to take a closer look at Herod’s role in the nativity. After all, he was at least partly responsible for sending them to Jesus. “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” (Matthew 2:7-8) Herod is a somewhat forgotten part of this nativity, but he certainly played a significant role in the birth and early life of Jesus. Matthew says in verse 3 that when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, “Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” It might make sense that Herod was troubled—he guarded his throne zealously, and certainly did not enjoy having other aspiring kings around. But why was all Jerusalem troubled with him? Dr. Duane Edward Spencer taught that since Herod was a cruel ruler who was not exactly beloved in Jerusalem, the fact that the city was disturbed along with him at the approach of these men suggested a somewhat larger and more capable party than three men on camels—perhaps a troop of famed Persian cavalry. It makes sense, since a few men carrying valuable gifts would have been easy prey for robbers, and three guys on camels probably wouldn’t make a city tremble. This is a real story about real people, and it makes sense that men of this stature would not travel without protection, and that Herod and people in Jerusalem would all have their own interpretation of events. Herod tried to twist the Magi to his own ends, asking them to go find this newborn king so he could “worship him”. Like many real politicians before and since, Herod was lying about his true intent. He was a paranoid ruler who was constantly involved in intrigue and questionable choices. (A Herod played a role in Jesus’ birth and in his death. His son, Herod Antipas, carried on the family tradition of making poor choices by marrying his half-brother’s wife, Herodias. She was the one whose daughter danced provocatively for him and then demanded the head of John the Baptist. Definitely soap opera material… Herod Antipas is the same guy who wanted Jesus to perform for him, and who sent him back to Pilate after a very cursory “trial”). But at about the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod the Great sent the Magi to Bethlehem to find Jesus and report back to him. When they didn’t bring him a report, he reacted by doing something that followed his reputation down the corridors of time.

He killed all the male children in Bethlehem two years of age and under. While he missed Jesus, his cruelty touched many other lives, and has always been known as the “Slaughter of the Innocents.” (While scholars have not found a direct reference to this act outside of the Bible, it is certainly in keeping with Herod’s character–the man so jealous of his throne that he killed his own mother-in-law, two sons, and his wife Miriamme, just to mention a few. Executing a few little boys would not have bothered him in the least.) Real people. Real events. Know your history: Jesus was really actually part of it.

 

The Holidays are twinkling lights
And carolers on snowy nights,
Our Christmas movies on TV and presents underneath the tree.
We think of things we love so much--
The Christmas tree, the gifts and such,
And little children's shining eyes with every Santa Claus surprise!
But don't forget, when your stockings and hearts are filled,
The boys in Bethlehem, and the evil king who had them killed.
Traditions are nice, and so are the things we feel--
But don't forget. Yeah, Christmas just got real.

To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread
For the Kindle Edition, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Bo-Jackson-ebook/dp/B01K5Z0NLA/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-2&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread