Advent 4: The Affections

imagesWhile Luke’s gospel records the birth and immediate arrival of the shepherds, Matthew’s is a little different. There is a delay of some sorts. Most estimate that, by the time the magi arrived, Jesus was somewhere between the age of 1 and 2 years old.

The reason?

These noble magi had travelled all the way from the east, maybe as far as what we now call China. In those days, travel was done by foot and/or upon domesticated animal. By the time they saw the star, hit the road westward and arrived to the town of Bethlehem, months upon months would have passed. Not to mention that, in Matt 2:16, we read that Herod wanted all baby boys two years and under put to death. Hence, the expectation that Jesus was a bit older at this point.

Even more, underneath this whole account, written by a Jew (Matthew) to a mainly Jewish audience, we find specific undertones to tell us this is the Christ, the Messiah-King, foretold by the prophets.

1) The gifts

We know of the 3 gifts. We normally associate 3 gifts with 3 wise men/magi (the song, We Three Kings). But it’s more likely that, even if there were only 3 magi, there would have been an entourage of people travelling with these dignitaries.

Still, noting the specific gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (the last 2 being exotic spices mixed at times into an incense for worship), this would have reminded the Jews of a story of long ago. David’s first kingly son, Solomon, was visited by a great dignitary, the Queen of Sheba (see 1 Kings 10:1-10). And what did she bring – large quantities of gold, spices and precious stones. I mean large quantities.

But here was David’s even greater son, Jesus the Christ. And here were dignitaries bringing very similar gifts.

2) The star

There was a prophet of old whom we read about in the first books of the Bible, one who was not so good. His name was Balaam. Interestingly enough, he had come from the east (near the Euphrates River) and he prophesied that a star will come out of Jacob, a sceptre will rise out of Israel (Num 24:17-19).

One from the east telling of a star. Magi from the east following a star. The Jews would have caught this parallel.

3) The babies

A deliverer once arose amongst God’s people long ago. We know him as Moses. In that day, king Pharaoh had ordered that all baby boys be put to death.

Sound familiar?

A new Moses was now arising who would lead a new exodus for the people of God. King Herod was peeved to know a new king of the Jews was here, since that was his own title. He would have none of it. This boy must be put to death, so let’s take them all out just to make sure.

Jews reading the account would have been drawn in. It would have struck a chord with them.

God always communicates within a historical framework. He does not speak so abstractly. When God revealed himself to the Hebrew-Jewish people, he did so within their context. And when Christ comes, he comes within that same framework. Of course, God is not bound to this. But he chooses to make himself known in such a way. In a sense, it’s incarnational.

Moving on…

It’s interesting to note that, those who should have properly responded to the arrival of Christ, did not. You’ve even got the chief priests and teachers of the law able to tell us where the Messiah was to be born – in Bethlehem, according to Micah 5:2. But where were they?

Rather, we have crazy astrologers and smelly shepherds who respond. Those outside the club find themselves in amazement and worship of the Christ child. Matthew is quite scandalous for pointing this out – remember, he’s a Jew mainly writing to Jews.

And we find these magi giving some of the greatest gifts of their day. As some kind of dignitaries, it’s interesting to see them bowing before the child. We already see a remarkable reversal of the world’s values, showing us the true ways of the kingdom of God.

Now, these noble magi would have had such expensive gifts at their disposal. But the point is what has been communicated even deeper. Most of us have not gold and exotic spices of such extravagant price. But what we do have, we are called to offer unto Christ. What he calls for even more is that of ourselves. The Father is seeking those who worship from deep spirit and out of truth. We are called to present ourselves as living sacrifices. We might claim we have little, but we do have ourselves – will, mind, heart, body, soul.

It’s not to over-spiritualise the account. They actually gave gifts. We, at times, render gifts unto the Lord. But, in the end, bulls and goats he does not require. He calls for a broken and contrite heart from his people.

And, so, this Christmas season, we are reminded to give the gift of ourselves unto Christ. Does he need us? Not in the sense of being insecure without us. But we have been created for him, by him and unto him. He is true Lord and King over all. And kings deserve the best. We are the best gift to render.

18 thoughts on “Advent 4: The Affections

  1. I had always believed that the magi arrived when Jesus was 1 or 2 years old as most scholars say. It just made sense. But a couple years ago I read an article that made me question that.

    First of all, it’s interesting to note that there is NO indication in the scripture that any significant time had passed.

    Also, isn’t it certainly possible that the star appeared early enough that the magi began traveling long before Jesus was even CONCEIVED, let alone born? And, if you allow for that possibility, doesn’t it make the story even that much better, to see how God orchestrated events so that they would show up as soon as possibly the next day?

    Another argument for this shortened time period. Why would Mary and Joseph stay in Bethlehem for over a year? The child could have safely traveled back to Joseph’s house in Nazareth after just a couple weeks. And if they DID stay, where WOULD they stay? Did they buy a house there?

    Well, consider this possibility. We know that Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in Bethlehem, and given his position as a priest, likely in a larger house on the outskirts of the city proper. When Mary and Joseph arrived, why would they go to an INN when they had relatives that lived there? The word “inn” is actually better translated “upper rooms”. Larger houses at that time had a central courtyard area (where the animals would be kept) surrounded by the living quarters. The servants quarters, kitchen, etc. would be on the lower floor and the bedrooms were upstairs.

    Given that many family members would probably have been staying with them (due to the census) and that they arrived at a late hour, most of the household and guests would have been asleep in the upper rooms. Mary did not want people roused out of their beds for her. (She may not have even been able to climb to a “proper” bedroom in her condition.) so she gave birth down in the courtyard with the animals, probably with Elizabeth and one or more of her handmaidens helping out. The manger was a convenient “first stop” for the baby as Mary rested after delivery. It makes sense that the shepherds would easily find this house on the outskirts of town with lamps lit so late at night and a baby lying in a manger in the courtyard. (Note that it says the shepherds went “into the city” after seeing Jesus, again implying that the house was on the edge of town).

    The magi could have come the next day (or shortly thereafter). At that time Mary and Joseph would have had a proper room in Zechariah’s house to stay in until mother and baby were able to travel home to Nazareth. However, due to the Magi’s warning about Herod, they went to Egypt instead.

    Herod killed all the children under 2 years because HE calculated that they started the journey some months ago, and wanted to be sure he covered all his bases.

    So, our traditional vision of Jesus being born in a smelly stable after some terribly cruel innkeeper turned away a woman about to give birth may not be the truth. Jesus probably was born surrounded by relatives (although most of them were unaware of it at the time.) Joseph probably didn’t deliver the child, Elizabeth would have never allowed such a thing. Still, all the events of that night came together to show both the humble and the influential that the King of a new kingdom was born.

      • True, but it’s based on our knowledge of the culture of Bethlehem, where priests usually lived, and a better understanding of the meaning of some lesser used words in the Bible. (The same word is translated “upper room” later on in Luke.) Our traditional storyline is with us because at some point someone “supposed” it was that way, based on the knowledge they had at the time. So, there’s nothing wrong with supposing, as long as it jives with our current knowledge and doesn’t infringe upon the humanity or deity of Christ.

      • Robert, here’s a link to an article with a similar message. In it, he assumes they would have stayed with Joseph’s family, which could also be true. I tend toward Zechariah because we know Mary visited Elizabeth there in the house before. It seems more logical to me that that is where they would go. After all, Elizabeth had just given birth shortly before. She had baby “experience”.

      • OK, I’ve done some more research on this, and while it’s POSSIBLE that Zechariah and Elizabeth lived just outside Bethlehem, there is no evidence that suggests that. Scholars believe they lived either in Hebron (which seems way too far from Jerusalem to me) or Ein Kerem (more logical for being a priest in the temple, but still too far from Bethlehem for my scenario to hold water). So I will concede that. I still think they stayed with family, not in a “hotel”, but that they arrived so late and Mary was so close to delivery that it wasn’t practical to move people out of their rooms for her that night. It’s obvious they were in a “house” when the magi visited, and I’m sure it wasn’t THEIR house, so it must have been a relative (since Joseph’s family was FROM there, it makes sense.)

        I sure like my idea, though.

      • Can’t tell if that was a statement or a question. 🙂

        It makes sense that he was, since he was an accomplished businessman. He probably would have been still under apprenticeship if he had been her age. He also SEEMS to be pretty wise about the ways of the world and concerned about family opinions. Young men tend to be a bit more impulsive and “rebellious” towards parental attitudes.

        Not sure what your point was, though.

      • @Ken, the point being that Joseph was – if much older than Mary – more settled and a man of wisdom and some means, certainly spiritually. I too see Jospeh as actually much older perhaps? Just a point! But, I surely don’t see Mary as the mother of a Jewish brood. And if James was the blood-brother of Jesus, and the next in-line, he would have had to have been at the cross and death of Jesus, but he was not! John, the Apostle was given the charge and responsibility of Mary, (John 19: 25-26-27).

        *Note, I am not coming from a Roman Catholic position on Mary, but yes closer to Luther and certainly Calvin. Later John Wesley also took their position on Mary.

      • I see your point about James, but it is possible he wasn’t at the crucifixion because he very much disliked Jesus at that point in his life. I don’t think he wanted anything to do with Jesus. You notice Joseph isn’t there either. He likely had already passed and James may have been the one running the carpenter shop. He may have been “unable” or unwilling to go to Jerusalem at that time. It wasn’t until later after the resurrection that he had a change of heart regarding his brother.

      • Ken: James, was going the “see” the Risen Christ very soon, (Gal. 15: 7). And no doubt Joseph had passed away and was with the Lord. And His Mother Mary was going with the Apostle John, even after the Resurrection. Tradition appears to bare this out also. And I really don’t think James, the so-called “brother” of the Lord, was a blood-brother at all, but a near kinsman, perhaps a son of the older Joseph? Note the Greek “Adelphos”, Mary had “one” Son of her own, (Mk. 6: 3, “Is not this the carpenter, “the” son of Mary”, etc.

      • Indeed the idea that Mary was ever-virgin, and had but one son, was also the position of all the top-tier Reformers! Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Bullinger, etc.; but no doctrine of the Immaculate Conception for the Reformers!

      • You could be right…. or not. I can see how that makes sense. James obviously had some familial connection. Half-brother works fine for me.

        As for Mary remaining immaculate. It’s a nice idea, but it’s not necessary. It doesn’t bother me if she had other kids. I don’t think that makes Jesus any less “special”. I’m satisfied either way.

        Thanks for the dialog. I enjoy discussing the different possibilities. I think it’s so interesting, our desire to KNOW every detail. We truly KNOW so little, and I think God likes it that way. 🙂

      • Ken: Just a note, but the so-called “Immaculate Conception”, is not the so-called Virgin Birth, but a Roman Catholic doctrine. The Reformers themselves rejected it. The Immaculate Conception is a Roman doctrine that Mary was herself born without sin, for the mission of Christ and the Incarnation. Even the EO or Orthodox reject the doctine of the Immaculate Conception. The Reformers of course believed in the Virgin Birth, and even that Mary had but one son and child. But not in the sinlessness of Mary, though at and during the Incarnation Mary was sinless as Jesus was in her womb. She was an Elect-vessel of grace!

      • Sorry, by “immaculate” I meant still a virgin. Poor choice of word on my part. I do not hold to any sinlessness on Mary’s part. She was a sinner under grace just as we all are. God can use imperfect vessels to do His work, as He always has.

      • Ken: I myself believe that Mary was at birth born sinful, but by God’s grace she was chosen and cleansed just after birth, and so for the mission and incarnation of Christ she was an elect-vessel of grace! Indeed SHE is the Theotokos! My position is one of faith and biblical theology.

      • Well, while I don’t see the biblical evidence for Mary having a special “cleansing”, I have no problem with you or anyone believing that. It doesn’t change my view of Christ a bit. We’ll know for sure when we can ask her ourselves. Wow! Won’t THAT be something?

      • Ken: That so-called “special” cleansing for Mary, is because of original sin and for the Incarnation of God in Christ! And note I believe in Covenant Baptism for us, also. Baptism is both a ‘sign & seal’ of our salvation, cleansing & forgiveness,
        ‘In Christ’, (1 Peter 3: 20-21 / Acts 22: 16).

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