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Showing posts with label Babylonia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Babylonia. Show all posts

Monday, July 10, 2023

Christmas in July - The Wisemen

One of our beloved Christmas traditions is the Three Wisemen bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to baby Jesus as He lay in the manger.  I started praying about this message way back in April—seeking the Lord’s direction about what to say.  He led me to preach on the story of the Wisemen for Christmas in July at my church.  The story comes to us from Matthew 2:1-12. 

Now, I want you to try and read to this story as if you’ve never read it before.  We will find that our Christmas traditions have added quite a bit that the Bible doesn’t say.  See if you can detect the differences.

Matthew 2:1-12
Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”

King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
    are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
    who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”

After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! 11 They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

12 When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.

Jesus Born in Bethlehem in 4 BC
Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod around 4 BC (give or take 10 years).  Scholars can determine a fairly accurate date based on the verified dates of King Herod’s reign and death, and other verified dates from events in the Gospel of Luke.

However, we don’t know how old Jesus was when the Wisemen came.  Matthew doesn’t specifically say.  Matthew does tell us that Herod was mad the Wisemen didn’t come back and tell him where to find Jesus.  Herod had every male child in Bethlehem 2 years old and younger killed. (Matthew 2:16)  So we can assume Jesus was not older than two.  He could have been a baby, but He could also have been a toddler. 

These Wisemen were from the East.  In the original Greek they were called Magi.  Magi were Scientific theologians from the ancient Persian Empire who sought God.  These were men who devoted their lives to try and figure things out.  They studied religion, astronomy, and nature to find out divine truth.  The tried to figure stuff out.  

Are you tying to figure some stuff out?  Then you are a lot like the Wisemen in the story.  Guess what:  God loves people who are just trying to figure stuff out.  He loves people who search for Truth.  That's why Jesus said, "Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you." (Matthew 7:7)

The Magi were from Babylon in Persia.  Persia was once the greatest Empire on Earth.  We often think of the greeks or the Romans as the greatest empires.  However, before the Roman Empire, before Greece, there was Persia.  In fact, much of what we admire about the Greeks and Romans, they copied from the Persians.  

Because the Persian empire was so vast, officials needed to be able to travel from one side to the other quickly.  So, the Persians developed state roads that were safe and equipped with supply stations along the way.  They invented passports for officials to present at supply stations so they could be resupplied with a fresh horse and food and shelter so they could travel lighter and faster.  They worked out many of the important bureaucratic details of how to administer government.  And they were avid students of science and learning.  But in Persia, science was not divorced from religion as it so often is today.  The Persians used science and religion together.  And that's where the Magi come into the equation.  

The Magi in Matthew's Wisemen story followed a star.  They studied and used astrological signs to try and figure things out.  And these Magi discovered a sign in the heavens that foretold something world changing was taking place in Israel.  It was so important, they had to investigate.

Persia was often on friendly terms with the Jews in Israel.  The Babylonian Empire before Persia destroyed Jerusalem and took its citizens into captivity.  When the Persians conquered the Babylonians, ti was the Persian emperor Cyrus who set the Jewish captives free to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.  The Persians even financed the project.  And the Jews and Persians maintained close relations and deep respect for each other after, until the Persian Empire was consumed by the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great.  

The Magi were the priests of Persia and they practiced a religion called Zoroastrianism, which taught God created a perfect world which is engaged in a war between good and evil that evil will be defeated at the end of time and a the world will be restored to its once perfect, original state.  It was very similar to the Judeo/Christian religious narrative.  It seems likely that the Persians and the Jews (and later Christians) influenced each other's religious thought.

These Magi who came seeking Jesus from Persia in the East, traveled around 800 miles to find Him.  It would have taken at least 4 months to travel Persia to find Jesus. We can assume from how far they traveled that they were serious about their mission.  How far would you go to find God’s Truth?

Unlike the Wisemen, the important, powerful people in Jerusalem who should have known and been paying attention to this stuff had no idea what God was doing in their own country.  And when someone from outside told them, all they wanted to do was stop it from happening.

But the Magi, from the East, were deeply interested in Jesus, the new King of the Jews.  They believed His arrival would change the world forever.  He was not only the King of the Jews, Jesus was these Persian Magi’s King too.  He was to be King of the whole world.  So the Wisemen brought Him gifts.

Three Gifts
it is tradition to say there were three Wisemen.  But the Scripture does not say that.  There were three gifts named, not three men.  There may have been three gift or there may have been more or less.  The text just says there were some Wisemen (Magi).  But we know there were three gifts.

What the three gifts actually mean is not exactly known.  People have often speculated about their meaning.  Gold is an obvious gift to give a king because people gave their very best as tribute to the ruling king.  You didn't give your second best.  And gold is the very best metal.  So you give King Jesus your very best or do you give Him what you have left over?

Frankincense is a fragrant and valuable incense used in worship  Myrrh is an anointing oil, often used for embalming the dead.  It’s not in the Bible, but a very old Christian tradition going all the way back about 200 AD to a very wise and devote church leader named Origen says Gold marked Jesus as a king.  Myrrh showed He was mortal and would day be buried.  Frankincense showed Jesus is God and would rise from the grave and be worshipped.

Who are You in the Story?

After the Wisemen—these Magi from Persia—found Jesus and worshipped Him, it says they returned to their own country.  I’m sure they went home preparing their people to receive Christ as Lord and Savior when the time came.  A few decades later, Christian missionaries started arriving to share the Good News that the baby Jesus grew up to become a great teacher and healer and worker of miracles.  He lived a perfect life, yet the religious leaders arrested and tortured Him and nailed Him to a cross.  He died and was buried, but on the third day He rose from the grave and has ascended to Heaven where He rules at the right hand of God.  One day, Jesus will return in glory to judge the living and the dead and to restore all creation to God's perfect plan.  And Jesus will rule as Lord forever.  And many Persians believed and became Christian.


But what about you?  Who are you in the story?  Who do you relate to the most?  Are you like the Wisemen—just trying desperately to figure some things out?  Jesus is the one with the answers.  Seek Him today and He will find you.

Maybe, you’re you like all those people in Jerusalem.  They were just going about their busy lives—trying to make ends meet, trying to take care of family, consumed with the ins and outs of life and the hot topics of the day, all the while oblivious to the eternity changing things God is doing.  Is that you?  Jesus is alive and actively working in the world all around you.  Are you too busy and distracted to see Him?  You better wake up!  You don't want to miss what He is doing!

Or maybe you’re like Herod--concerned only with protecting your hold on power and the security of your “little kingdom” at all costs.  You’ll do anything to protect your little world—even if it means fighting against God’s plan.  God's plans are so much better than yours and His Kingdom is so much better.  Why fight against Him?  You shouldn't even want to.  You better repent and turn from your selfish sin and turn to God!  God is going to triumph in the end.  Who's side are you going to be on?

 Take some time to honestly consider what God is saying to you today.  
Then, talk to God about it in prayer.



Monday, July 11, 2022

Living in Babylon

1 Peter 2:12 says, “Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.”  Today, I want to speak on the subject of how Christians can live in a world hostile to God and God’s people.  The main scripture for this lesson is Daniel 1:1-20.  This story is from the Old Testament and takes place around 605 years before Christ.

Daniel 1:1-20
During the third year of King Jehoiakim’s reign in Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 The Lord gave him victory over King Jehoiakim of Judah and permitted him to take some of the sacred objects from the Temple of God. So Nebuchadnezzar took them back to the land of Babylonia and placed them in the treasure-house of his god.

3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief of staff, to bring to the palace some of the young men of Judah’s royal family and other noble families, who had been brought to Babylon as captives. 4 “Select only strong, healthy, and good-looking young men,” he said. “Make sure they are well versed in every branch of learning, are gifted with knowledge and good judgment, and are suited to serve in the royal palace. Train these young men in the language and literature of Babylon.” 5 The king assigned them a daily ration of food and wine from his own kitchens. They were to be trained for three years, and then they would enter the royal service.

6 Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were four of the young men chosen, all from the tribe of Judah. 7 The chief of staff renamed them with these Babylonian names:

Daniel was called Belteshazzar.
Hananiah was called Shadrach.
Mishael was called Meshach.
Azariah was called Abednego.

8 But Daniel was determined not to defile himself by eating the food and wine given to them by the king. He asked the chief of staff for permission not to eat these unacceptable foods. 9 Now God had given the chief of staff both respect and affection for Daniel. 10 But he responded, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has ordered that you eat this food and wine. If you become pale and thin compared to the other youths your age, I am afraid the king will have me beheaded.”

11 Daniel spoke with the attendant who had been appointed by the chief of staff to look after Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. 12 “Please test us for ten days on a diet of vegetables and water,” Daniel said. 13 “At the end of the ten days, see how we look compared to the other young men who are eating the king’s food. Then make your decision in light of what you see.” 14 The attendant agreed to Daniel’s suggestion and tested them for ten days.

15 At the end of the ten days, Daniel and his three friends looked healthier and better nourished than the young men who had been eating the food assigned by the king. 16 So after that, the attendant fed them only vegetables instead of the food and wine provided for the others.

17 God gave these four young men an unusual aptitude for understanding every aspect of literature and wisdom. And God gave Daniel the special ability to interpret the meanings of visions and dreams.

18 When the training period ordered by the king was completed, the chief of staff brought all the young men to King Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king talked with them, and no one impressed him as much as Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. So they entered the royal service. 20 Whenever the king consulted them in any matter requiring wisdom and balanced judgment, he found them ten times more capable than any of the magicians and enchanters in his entire kingdom.

Babylon, the Great Empire
The name Babylon is synonymous with decadence and immorality.  Revelation 17:5 says, “Babylon the Great, Mother of All Prostitutes and Obscenities in the World.” 

When we think of an evil city, we think of the name Babylon.  However, Babylon was a great, ancient city and part of a great civilization and empire. In Daniel’s world, Babylon was a superpower that controlled most of the known world. 

If we're honest and historically accurate, ancient Babylon had much in common with modern America.
Babylon gave much to the world.  They brought peace and stability and prosperity—so long as people gave their allegiance to Babylon’s king.  No country in our times has greater in influence than America.  American power and influence brings peace, stability, and prosperity around the globe wherever people are willing to cooperate with this nation.

And so I think Daniel’s story has much to say to Christians in America today.  Therefore, listen carefully. 

Daniel and his friends wanted to be faithful to God.  They were willing to cooperate with Babylon, so long as it didn’t contradict their duty to God.  They didn’t want to eat the meat served in Babylon’s royal palace because it had been sacrificed to Babylonian idols.  Meat in most places in the ancient world was almost always the product of a religious sacrifice.  We see this in the Bible where people were told to take a bull or a goat or a lamb to the Temple to be sacrificed to the God of Israel.  Afterwards, the priest and the people would eat the sacrificial animal.  Well, in Babylon, the animals were sacrificed to Babylonian gods, and Daniel and his friends didn't want to dishonor the God of Israel by eating meet that was a sacrifice to gods they considered false.  Daniel's religion specified that he 
"Should not worship any God but the Lord." (see the 10 commandments in Exodus 20)

Daniel and his friends believed that their God could sustain and prosper them, even if they only ate vegetables and water.  So while all the other royal servants ate the best meat and food of the palace, Daniel and his friends ate only vegetables and water (vegetables were safe because they generally weren't sacrificed as a part of religious ceremonies in Babylon).  And God was good.  After three years of their vegetarian diet, Daniel and his friends were smarter and healthier and better looking than all the other servants in the royal palace who had eaten the normal royal diet.  God is good!  Amen? 

Slide – The Roman Empire
Christians in the early years in the Roman Empire had a similar problem.  Not only with meat, but with other common practices in daily life in a pagan world.  All kinds of evil, detestable behaviors were common in various provinces in the Roman Empire.

·       There was infanticide.  If a baby was born to a family that they didn't want--maybe they wanted a boy and it was a girl or their was some kind of defect or deformity--then people in the Roman Empire would simply discard the child. They would put it out on the street and let nature take it's course and the child would die from exposure.  This is a practice that seems horrific to us today, but it was common practice in the ancient world.  Christians couldn't bare to see children treated this way because they believed every person was sacred to God and bore the image of God.  However, their pagan neighbors thought these Christians had some wacky ideas.  The Roman Empire was also full of idolatry, sorcery, sexual immorality (prostitution, orgies, adultery, polygamy, and homosexuality).  

Christians were a tiny minority in a very pagan Roman world.  Christians constantly had to wrestle with the dilemma of how to get along in a pagan world without condoning or participating in the immoral behaviors of the world that were incompatible with Christian teaching. They had to walk that delicate line between getting along with their pagan neighbors while remaining faithful to Jesus Christ in the hopes their pagan neighbors would also come to know Christ as Savior and Lord.  Furthermore, many of these early Christian followers had friends and family who were still pagan and saw nothing wrong with behavior Christian’s deemed off limits.  To pagans, Christians seemed odd and crazy to reject things everyone else in society considered just a normal part of life.  Christians were often convenient scape goats for anything that wen wrong in society.  If there was a political problem or a bad economy or a plague or something, people in power could just blame he Christians.  They could say, "It's their fault, because they don't worship the Roman gods like they're supposed to like everyone else."

21st Century America
We live in 21st century America.  Though America was overwhelmingly founded by people with deep Christian values, our culture today is increasingly hostile to Christianity.  It takes great wisdom, knowledge of Scripture, and delicacy for Christians to navigate our modern “Babylon”.  It is quite easy today for Christians to falter in 2 opposite directions.

First, there is the error of Christian nationalism, where Christians start to think God's main concern in this world is blessing America.  They start to think God loves American Christians more than Christians anywhere else in the world and so Christians main concern becomes fighting for traditional American values and they start associating America with God.  This is a kind of idolatry where the nation becomes a type of god.  And this can come in many forms.  Sometimes a political figure like Donald Trump can become the focus of a faulty Christian nationalism that can lead people to justify any behavior for the nation or the person.  If they are an agent of God, then they can do anything, no matter how heinous.  This is a very dangerous philosophy and it misses, terribly, the goals of God's Kingdom.

A second error on the other end of the spectrum is secular paganism.  Here, we find a people doing whatever they want without any regard for what God says is immoral behavior. People can live do whatever they think is right in their own eyes.  And we certainly see plenty of this kind of behavior in our modern world.

And so Christians have to learn to walk through all these extremes.  We have friends who are all over the place--some Christian nationalists, some pagans, and some of all kinds of other things that are not pleasing to God.  And Christians have to learn to get along with all these other kind of people while still remaining true to how we believe God is calling us to live.  

I want you to notice something important about Daniel and his friends. They were not mean spirited. They were actually quite cooperative with their Babylonian officials. They served the great king of Babylon as officials. They used their talents to help the Empire succeed.  Yet, they also carefully and tactfully avoided sinning against God by participating in Babylonian behavior that was off limits for God's people. 

Christians in 1st century Roman Empire learned the art of living gracefully among their pagan neighbors.  It was not easy.  Sometimes they were severely persecuted for being so different and refusing to be like everyone else.  Sometimes they were convenient scapegoats when society needed someone to blame.  

And the Apostles and Christian leaders in the New Testament had to constantly call Christians back when they started to drift from God and follow the corrupt practices of people around them.  The pressure from society around them was intense.  The New Testament is full of calls from church leaders to remain faithful and not succumb to the temptation to get ahead in the world by compromising faithfulness to God.  Unfortunately, some early Christians did turn away from Christ in favor of the world—either to avoid persecution or to gain worldly treasures. What a tragedy!  Jesus said in Mark 8:36, “What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” 

Christians today have a similar dilemma.  The temptation to be like everybody else is strong.
There is a lot of social pressure.  No one wants to be disliked because you refuse to act like everyone else.  And remaining true to Christian values can even limit business opportunities.  But what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?

Practical Advise
I wan to share some practical wisdom that can help you be faithful to Jesus while living in our modern day Babylon.  First and foremost, accept that this world is not your home.  We are incredibly blessed to live in 21st century America, which enjoys so many privileges and material blessings.  Yet, we must never ever start to believe these are what life is about.  Don't become so comfortable here that become enamored with them.  And along those lines, don't ever think America is not your home either.  You can be a proud American and even say the pledge of allegiance to the American flag, but don't ever let that allegiance take precedence to your allegiance to God.  It's a hard truth for some to accept, but America will soon be gone and forgotten.  And 1 Peter 2:11 says you [Christians] are “temporary residents and foreigners” living in this land.  Our true citizenship is in God's Kingdom.  So let that be our main focus.

Second, be faithful and obedient to God.  And you must be willing to sacrifice everything in order to remain faithful and obedient to God.   

Third, be gracious to your unbelieving neighbors.  There is a kind of person, especially ones who are so gung ho about my first two pieces of advice above, that they are just mean spirited to people.  They want so badly to fight and be right that they don't love people who believe differently.  So it's so important that we treat people how Jesus would treat them.

Jesus was a master of speaking the truth in love.  You have to love people enough to be honest with them--even if it's an honest truth they don't want to hear.  And yet, it's a truth that is spoken in love because they need to hear it.  Don't even forget it's motivated out of love.  You love them, becaue God loves them, just like God loves you!  And so you speak to the person out of love, not merely to prove you're right.  It's a subtle difference, but it's a world of difference.  So, be gracious and love people as Jesus loves you.  People who are willing to know the difference will see the difference in you, even if they don't agree with you.