Star of Wonder…


We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.Refrain:
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.
Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorr’wing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Sounds through the earth and skies.

John H, Hopkins, Jr.
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The Visit of the Wise Men
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, wise men came from the east to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who was born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”
When Herod the king heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where Christ should be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are no longer least among the princes of Judah;
for out of you shall come a Governor,
    who will shepherd My people Israel.’[a
Then Herod, when he had privately called the wise men, carefully inquired of them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring me word again, so that I may come and worship Him also.”
When they heard the king, they departed. And the star which they saw in the east went before them until it came and stood over where the young Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with great excitement. 11 And when they came into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary, His mother, and fell down and worshipped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 But being warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they returned to their own country by another route.

Matthew 2:1-12 (MEV)

Yesterday, I revisited the account of the shepherds; today, I’d like to take a closer look at the wise men from the East.  First, a bit of clarification:

  • They are (most likely) NOT three kings– at least not in the literal account given in Matthew.  (See more about the number and possible names  and places of origin of the wise men in various traditions here:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_Magi)
  • They did not arrive alongside the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth.  Again, tradition says they may have arrived as early as twelve days after his birth, or up to two years later.  Matthew’s account is very vague.  It quotes the prophesy about Bethlehem, but does not say that this is where the wise men actually found the child (notice that Matthew does not call him and infant or babe).  Their arrival in Jerusalem to make inquiries suggests that some time had elapsed, and the travelers were expecting to find ready knowledge of the birth (or perhaps the child himself) in the capital city.
  • They came “from the East”– which leads me to ask: Why were there no wise men in Judea studying this star and its significance?  These wise men had traveled for weeks or months, bringing gifts. They were  ready to honor a king they knew only from a few prophecies and their study of the night sky. Matthew’s account tells of their arrival and their questions.  They came looking for “the king of the Jews”, suggesting that they were aware of some of the prophecies about Messiah, but they were unaware of Micah’s prophecy concerning his birth in Bethlehem.  Yet the scholars and wise men of Jerusalem were “disturbed” rather than elated or excited by these revelations.   God had not spoken through the prophets of Israel for over 400 years, but He had not forgotten His promises, nor had He abandoned His people.  They, however, had lost their desire to study the prophecies; they had lost much of their hope and faith.  Not everyone had fallen into complacency– the book of Luke points out two specific people who eagerly awaited the coming of Messiah (See Luke 2:21-40).
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But it is not just the wise men that capture my attention…it is that miraculous “Star of Wonder.”

Scholars debate whether or not the “star of Bethlehem” was an actual star or another astronomical event.  See one good explanation here:   https://www.timesofisrael.com/can-astronomy-explain-the-biblical-star-of-bethlehem/

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I am not an astronomer, but everything about this story brings a sense of awe… If this was an actual star (either a new star or a star exploding into a supernova of intense bright light), its light would be traveling several millions of miles, even light years to be visible on Earth.  The star would have to have been burning several years before the birth it announced, and its light would have to reach the Earth in coordination with the events taking place across the vast emptiness of space.  If the “star” was actually a configuration of planets or another astronomical event, the same impeccable timing needed to be activated across the span of eons– just waiting for this exact moment for all the planets and other cosmic elements to align.  It is yet another incredible example of God’s sovereignty and omniscience that all of time, space, history, politics, and celestial objects came together to fulfill multiple prophecies given over multiple centuries and studied by people the world over.

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What can we learn from all this?  I pray that we would be open to the wonder and awe of every aspect of the Advent and Nativity.  I pray that we would seek as intently as these wise men of the East– that we would not be “disturbed” and taken aback when God fulfills His promises and sends signs and portents.  And I pray that we would shine in such a way as to draw people to the wonder of the Savior, even those from distant lands who have never heard the gospel.

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks


While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.
“Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind;
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind.
“To you, in David’s town, this day
Is born of David’s line
A Savior, who is Christ the Lord,
And this shall be the sign:
“The heav’nly Babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
And in a manger laid.”
Thus spake the seraph and forthwith
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God on high,
Who thus addressed their song:
“All glory be to God on high,
And to the Earth be peace;
Good will henceforth from heav’n to men
Begin and never cease!”

Words by Nahum Tate

Why the shepherds? Angels might have appeared to the rulers and priests of Israel, announcing the birth of their long-awaited Messiah, but they did not.  Nor did they appear to the common citizens (and other visitors) in Bethlehem.  We make much of the shepherds being lowly and humble, and that is true enough.  But there were other poor and humble people throughout the land.  And there were “important” people who waited to hear the news.  

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There is something about shepherds that is close to the heart of God.  All the way back in Genesis– Abel was a shepherd.  The early patriarchs– Abraham, Isaac, Jacob– were all shepherds.  Moses, when God called him, was working as a shepherd.  King David started as a shepherd, tending his father’s sheep, while his older brothers were serving in the army.  The prophet Amos was a shepherd.  Jesus used several parables about and allusions to shepherds and sheep as well.  (See Matthew 18:10-14; John 10 among others.)

Shepherds are humble, yes, but there are other traits that I think are at work in the story of the Nativity– some important, and others incidental:

  • Shepherds watch.  That seems pretty self-evident from songs and passages, but it’s also important.  The shepherds weren’t watching for angels that night, but they were alert, combing the area for dangers, pitfalls, straying sheep, wandering predators…There is nothing in the Bible that says that the angels were invisible to anyone else in the neighborhood; only that the angel appeared to the shepherds and was joined by the hosts of heaven.
  • Shepherds must focus on others.  Much is made of the “lowly” station of shepherds.  But that is the nature of the job.  A “Good” shepherd is one whose focus and efforts are directed at the sheep.  He doesn’t “climb the ladder of success”, “toot his own horn”, “keep banker’s hours”– in fact the shepherds of the Nativity story were the “night shift”, tending the flocks when it was cold, dark, dangerous, and thankless!
  • Shepherds were familiar with “unconventional” birth.  An announcement that Messiah was born in a stable and could be found wrapped in strips of cloth would come as a surprise to shepherds, but not as an impossibility or a cruel joke.  Shepherds (anyone whose livelihood depends on the safe delivery of livestock) would understand and rejoice over new life, even in unexpectedly humble or unconventional circumstances.
  • Shepherds were often “left out” of ceremonies and celebrations, because of their frequent contact with blood and death.  The angel’s announcement had special meaning in the inclusion of shepherds, which was to show that even those who had been deemed ritually unclean were to be included in the “Good news of Great Joy!”
  • The shepherds were “abiding” in the fields.  These were not the temporary visitors thronging to Bethlehem for the census.  They were not the patriarchs of great families living in walled compounds or great estates; neither were they awake in the middle of the night plotting, scheming, or creating havoc.  They were humble, but they were faithfully doing their work.
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This Advent season, may we consider the shepherds and learn to be watchful, other-focused, joyful, ready to accept the Good News, and faithful in all that we do and say in response to our Good Shepherd!

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I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day


I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play;
In music sweet the tones repeat,
“There’s peace on earth, good will to men.”
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th’ unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor does He sleep,
For Christ is here; His Spirit near
Brings peace on earth, good will to men.”
*When men repent and turn from sin
The Prince of Peace then enters in,
And grace imparts within their hearts
His peace on earth, good will to men.
O souls amid earth’s busy strife,
The Word of God is light and life;
Oh, hear His voice, make Him your choice,
Hail peace on earth, good will to men.
Then happy, singing on your way,
Your world will change from night to day;
Your heart will feel the message real,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with alterations and *additional text by Harlan D. Sorrell.

Some Christmas Carols are the joyous outpouring of Christmas cheer, filled with the laughter of wonder of the season.  Others are forged in pain and doubt that has been turned to the light of hope and renewal.  Such is the story behind this hymn. http://suvcw.org/mollus/art005.ht

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The famous American poet, H. W. Longfellow had lost his wife in a tragic fire just three years before he nearly lost his son in the horrors of the Civil War.  When his son was severely wounded in battle, Longfellow went to the military hospital, and, when he could, he transported his son home, knowing the journey would be painful and the outcome might not be a happy one.  (His son lived, but never recovered fully– see the article above.)
As he sat with his wounded son over the Christmas season, he could hear the bustle and chatter, and the bells ringing from the church steeples, announcing the good news of Christmas.  As his pain and bitterness churned, he wrote about it, and about how his heart was turned from bitterness to hope. (See the original poem here:   https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Poetry/christmas_bells.htm

Photo of C. A. Longfellow

Christmas is a time of warmth and good cheer for many–the ringing of bells, the singing of merry tunes, the tinsel and glitter of decorations–but for others, it is a time of deep soul-searching.  “My life is a mess.  I have suffered greatly.  There is no Peace On Earth!”  Yet, the hope and promise of Christmas rings out greater than the darkness and the blast of gunfire, the angry outcries and the weeping of those in grief.

How can this be?

Christmas reminds us that our circumstances, though very real and very painful, are confined to this time and space.  They are temporary– not in the sense that we will forget our pain or loss– but that we can still experience hope and joy  and healing in their midst.  “The Wrong shall fail”–there will still be evil in the world, injustice, hunger, abuse, sickness–wrong will still exist, but it does not have the power to define us, to enslave us and take away our ability to do good.  “The Right, prevail”–God’s promise of Messiah (among several hundred other prophetic promises!) has been fulfilled.  God is Faithful.  God’s word endures.  God’s Justice Will Be Done, and there will be “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.”

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Christmas also reminds us that it is just in those very small things– the tolling of bells, being able to hug your child,  to share memories of loved ones who are no longer here, being grateful for small gifts, giving a word of encouragement–that hope and joy are spread like ripples of water and echoes of sound.  Christ’s birth was humble, but it was heralded with the hosts of angels from the highest heavens. 

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My prayer today is that we would listen for the true message of Christmas, and that we would echo and repeat the message– even if it seems that we are being drowned out by sirens and protests, or silenced by those who are hurting and cannot hear the sweetness in the music of the season.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo


Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains.Refrain:
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be
Which inspire your heav’nly song?
Come to Bethlehem and see
Him Whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.
See Him in a manger laid,
Whom the choirs of angels praise;
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
While our hearts in love we raise.
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This has always been one of my favorite Christmas carols to sing.  I love the movement of the melodic line and the harmonies, especially when singing the angels’ chorus:  “Gloria, in excelsis Deo!  Gloria, in excelsis Deo!”
(Glory to God in the Highest Heavens!)

Yet, if we think about it, the angels seem almost to be having a joke.  There is something ironic about hosts of angels praising the glory of God in His highest Heaven, when they are announcing that He is, at that moment, a wailing, helpless infant, wrapped in rags and borrowing a feeding trough for his bed, miles from the warmth and comfort of a home of any kind, let alone the glory of His rightful throne.

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And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 

Luke 2:8-18 (NIV)
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And this is how God chose to appear, and chooses to work– confounding the power of the powerful, the wisdom of the wise, and the goodness of the self-righteous.  God does not glorify that which is already a spectacle.  Instead he glorifies the lowly and unqualified things of the world by coming into them, working through them, and reshaping them for His use.

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And so, may we have eyes, ears, and hands to work in the same way–to raise up, encourage, bless, and honor those who cannot yet see the Glory around them, the Glory God offers to share freely.  May we be the host of God’s messengers to spread the Glorious news of Christ’s gift of life and salvation.  May we be like the shepherds, jubilant in our acceptance of His great news.  And may we be, like the babe himself–humble and kind–bringing Glory to the world around us, no matter how dark or unwelcoming it may appear.  Remember, God himself is with us!

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Gloria!  Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

What Child is This?


What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby;
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Words by William C. Dix

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No other name in all history elicits such differing and intense responses.  Jesus, the son of Mary
Jesus, the Son of God
Jesus, the Son of Man
Jesus, the Son of David
Jesus, the Christ
Jesus, the Messiah

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Who is this child– ruler of the universe,
Laid in a feeding stall,
In a simple stable,
In a small town,
In a captive land?
Son of a carpenter (illegitimate, by some accounts),
In the royal line of David (but so far removed as to be of no account).

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Yet angel hosts sing “Gloria!”
Kings and philosophers travel from distant lands for just a glimpse,
Bringing priceless treasures and humbled hearts,
While the beleaguered puppet king of a conquered people 
Prepares to destroy him.

Will he rise to take his place in Herod’s palace?
Will he lead a revolt to free his people from Rome?
Will he bring together rival factions among the priesthood?
Will he …
Die in agony, betrayed and scorned?

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This, this is Christ the King;
The Lamb of God.
Savior and Sacrifice.
“The Silent Word”, 
Pleading,
Healing,
Bleeding,
Ascending.
Even in his humble life and
Ignominious death
He rose to change the world–
Stopping time and dividing it into
All that came before and
All that has happened since.

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This is Christ the King
Bruised for our sins,
Betrayed by our selfishness
Cheapened by our compromise and corruption.

Bring him incense, gold, and myrrh;
He is more than our tinsel, jingle bells, and platinum charge cards.
He is the King– He is a Babe; the son of Mary.

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