Imagine waiting and searching the stars for some kind of sign that the world’s greatest king would be born. The wise men received the news of this promised star when God’s people became exiles in 597 B.C. and 587 B.C. For nearly six hundred years they waited and searched the heavens for the rising of this star.
Who were these wise men? They were probably from the land of Babylon or Persia (the early church, in the Roman catacombs, have the wise men dressed in Persian garments). Their role in society was to acquire all kinds of wisdom so that they could advise their leaders and people in the areas of medicine, religion, astronomy, divination and magic. They especially would study the skies for any messages that “the heavens” might have; ever mindful of the prophecy recorded in Numbers 24:17: “a star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.”
The appearance of this star alerted the wise men that something very special was taking place in the land of Palestine. Jupiter as the “king’s planet.” Saturn was viewed as the planet of Palestine. The Pisces constellation represented world-changing events. Thus, Jupiter encountering Saturn in “the sign of the fishes” would have meant that a divine and cosmic ruler was to appear in Palestine. Noted author and theologian Paul Maier believed that this star first caught their attention; and then the Lord provided a “special star” to guide them to Jerusalem and from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
When they found the Child, they fell down and worshiped Him. They also brought Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh: gold – the kind of gift one would give to the king, denoting His kingship; frankincense – a fragrant gum resin that a priest used in his temple duties, denoting His future priesthood; myrrh – an aromatic resin used in perfumes, and as an oil for anointing and embalming, denoting His death as the Anointed One of God – the Messiah.
Two things stand out for me as I again read this story: (1) the wise men traveled a great distance to worship Jesus – hundreds of miles on a camel, over a period of several months; (2) they gave Jesus the very best that they had, gifts worthy of their King.
Several years later, at just the right time in human history, Jesus began His ministry in the region of “Galilee of the Gentiles;” fulfilling another ancient prophecy: “the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:1-2; Matthew 4:15-16).
Jesus was that promised Light – “the true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world knew Him not. He came to His own home, and His own people received Him not. But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:9-13; 3:1-21)
A poor Scottish farmer named Fleming heard a cry for help from a bog near where he was working. He dropped his tools, ran, and found a terrified boy waist deep in black muck. He was screaming and struggling desperately to free himself but could not. Fleming, that day, saved the boy from what could have been a slow and terrifying death.
The next day an elegant carriage pulled up to the Scotsman’s humble house. The nobleman who stepped out introduced himself as the father of the boy Fleming had saved and said: “I want to repay you. You saved my son’s life.”
Fleming waved off the offer saying: “I can’t accept any payment.” At that moment the farmer’s son came around the corner. The nobleman asked: “Is that your son?” to which the farmer said: “Yes.” “I will make you a deal,” the nobleman offered. “You won’t accept any payment but let me give your son a good education.” And he did.
Later the farmer’s son grew to become Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin. Some years after that the nobleman’s son was stricken with pneumonia and was saved by the penicillin. That nobleman’s son, saved by farmer Fleming from the muck, and then saved by his son with penicillin, was Sir Winston Churchill.
This is God’s way of working in the world -- to place the right people in the right place at the right time to accomplish His purposes and mission. At just the right time Jesus came to save us all. This same active God has placed us here in this place, at this time, so that we might be His light in the world today. Just as Jesus was sent to a people living in darkness, we are His sent ones today so that we might make known Jesus as the Light of the world and the Hope of the nations.
We close with these words from Peter as he encourages us to remember who we are in Christ and what is our mission as His people: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).
This last year, as I have been visiting congregations and saying goodbye, the sermon text has been “the parable of the rich fool” (Luke 12:13-21). As we close out the year 2020, the following are a few thoughts about experiencing the good life now, and as we enter 2021.
A Sunday school teacher, after the telling the story of the rich man and Lazarus, asked the class this question: “now, who would you rather be, the rich man or Lazarus?” After allowing for a few moments of reflection, one of the children replied: “I would like to be the rich man in this life and Lazarus when I die!”
The parable of the rich fool does a nice job of addressing two dominant cultural themes in the Western world: individualism and materialism. Individualism focuses on “life is about me” and materialism focuses on “life is about accumulating and acquiring more and more stuff.”
I love my grandson Jack (and my granddaughter Addie too) yet I must admit that Jack struggles with these two themes in his life (as do most of us if we are honest with ourselves). One of his favorite words is “mine” and whenever he receives a new toy, he sleeps with it for about a week or two until the next toy takes its place (and he has the tendency to become a fire-breathing Smaug if Addie tries to take one of his toys from the lair of his bed).
In order to help us understand what the good life looks like, Jesus told a parable to a couple of brothers who were struggling with possession of wealth; for they were arguing over who should receive what when the inheritance was divided up.
Jesus does not get involved in their dispute by telling them how to divide up the inheritance; however, what He does do, is to give them this counsel: “take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And then He shared with them the parable of the rich fool.
The land of a rich man brought forth a plentiful harvest year after year. His biggest concern was figuring out how to store all of his wealth. So he thought to himself and resolved to do this: I will tear down my old barns and put up larger ones and there I will store all of MY grain and MY goods; and then I can “kick back” and take life easy as I “eat, drink and be merry.”
But God said to him: “you fool…this very night your soul is required of you…and the things you have prepared, whose will they be…this is what it is like for the man who lays up treasure for himself, but is not rich toward God.”
So what is the good life? For the rich man in this parable it was working hard, acquiring significant wealth and then enjoying his retirement years as he ate, drank and was merry. Yet God had a different perspective, and a different judgment, upon this man’s version of the good life: “what good is it to gain the whole world yet lose one’s soul?”
A favorite verse from the Old Testament that answers the good life is found in Micah 6:8: “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you? That you act justly, that you love mercy, and that you walk humbly with your God.”
Over the years I have come across many stories that help illustrate the biblical text; and here are four stories that grant us a glimpse into what the good life is like:
1: Every person needs three conversions
Five hundred years ago Martin Luther, in one of his sermons, taught that every Christian needs to experience three conversions: first, of the heart because we have to believe differently; second, of the mind because we have to think differently; and third, of the wallet because we have to spend our wealth differently. Often, Luther said, the third conversion was the most difficult for the German people of his time.
Ambrose was a significant leader in the early church, living from 338 A.D. to 397 A.D. In his commentary notes on this parable, he had this applicational insight: “the rich man had plenty of barns in the mouths of the needy.” God had richly blessed him so that he could be a blessing to the families of the earth.
3: London Mission Society
One of the most active, and fruitful, mission societies in the last two hundred years was the London Mission Society; and yet, for the society to resource the sending of hundreds of missionaries, it required gifts from many people, especially large gifts from wealthy donors.
One day a solicitor from the London Mission Society was visiting a very wealthy business owner who was in the shipping business. After a very nice time visiting about the missionary work of the Mission Society, the owner wrote out a very large and generous check. However, before the solicitor could leave with the check, news arrived to the owner that a huge storm had sunk several of his boats in the Atlantic Ocean and that he had lost 50% of his wealth.
In response to that difficult news, the owner asked the solicitor for the check back; and slowly the solicitor complied with the owner’s request. Upon receiving the check back, the owner tore the check up and sat down; and, after a few moments of prayerful reflection, wrote out a new check for double the amount!
When asked why he did so, he replied: “It is clear to me that I don’t know how long I will have the things that I have; but I do know that God wants me to be rich toward Him and His mission.”
4: Robert Moffat, missionary to Southern Africa
Years ago, in a small church in rural Scotland, as the ushers were returning to the altar with the offering plates, a little boy, sitting next to the aisle, tugged at the sleeve of one of the men and whispered: “Sir, please put the plate down on the floor”
Bewildered, the usher did as the little boy asked. Whereupon the boy proceeded to step into the offering plate. This was his way of saying to God: “I give my whole self to you, not only the money in my pocket, but my time, my strength, my whole life!”
As we close out the year 2020, we thank Him for the good life that He has given to us; and we look forward to the year 2021 and the many opportunities that we will have to bless the families of the earth with the Gospel and as we “act justly, show mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”