Joseph, did you know?

Much has been made about the wise men coming to visit young Jesus. They have a Christmas carol devoted to their story (We Three Kings), an entire liturgical season about the themes of the Gospel being revealed to the nations (Epiphany), and now a recent rise in memes about the little drummer boy waking up the baby and the wise men presenting Him with wildly impractical gifts. The image is legitimately funny, I love a good sardonic meme. But I think the trend uncovers a real misunderstanding about the timing of these costly gifts. Many of us vaguely assume they sat on a shelf or were purely symbolic of gifts one gives to a king. It’s true that they had significant meaning of the Gospel going out to the Gentiles (which I have written about previously), and the gifts indeed show appropriate honor and recognition of Jesus as King. And God also timed it in a way to have wonderful practical benefit for a poor family in crisis.

The arrival of the wise men ignited a complex chain of events (Matt. 2). Their response to God drawing them to Israel was a blessing to them and their people, and it unintentionally triggered a major threat to the life of the Savior they came to find. The wise men innocently went to Herod first, having no idea of his reputation for being deeply paranoid and power hungry. This was a man who had some of his sons killed because he was so concerned with being overthrown and who maintained his own secret police. As soon as he caught wind of a potential challenger to his power, he wanted him dead. God intervened through the use of multiple dreams, warning both the wise men and Joseph about the plot. Joseph was specifically instructed to take the family to Egypt to escape Herod’s violence, which he obediently does.

How would a poor working-class family have been able to afford major sudden travel and to live in a foreign land without guarantee of employment or housing in a new place? With the expensive gifts the wise men had providentially brought with them a few days earlier. These gifts not only affirmed the Divinity and Lordship of Christ, they were also a timely resource for His parents to be able to make a desperate trip on short notice to avoid political violence. Not only to make the trip, but to be able to stay in Egypt indefinitely until again visited in a dream and told it was safe to return. This situation would have been impossible without God’s wisdom and provision.

With the benefit of being modern Bible readers who see the whole story laid out at once, we might think it must have been easy for Joseph to just trust God the whole time. Maybe it was. But I know what would have been hard for me was only knowing one step of the plan at a time. Joseph only gets instructions for each step of the process, never the whole plan laid out at once. He’s told to marry Mary and believe her testimony that she is miraculously pregnant and not a cheater. He’s told to go to Egypt. He’s told some time later to come back to Israel. When they get back in the country, he’s told to go to Nazareth rather than their hometown of Bethlehem. At any given time, there’s a whole lot that Joseph didn’t know. What he did know was that God proved Himself faithful and trustworthy at each juncture, and never left them stranded or abandoned.

As we enter Epiphany and a new year, a lot of us are feeling anxiety and uncertainty. About the ongoing pandemic, about work/career, relationships, about what’s next and whether we have what we it takes for what’s ahead. The visit of the wise men and their timely gifts offers us great assurance that God always knows our future and is already planning to make sure we have what we need to follow Him. We will likely need some patience and trust, we’ll probably only be led one step at a time. Having to move in faith and then wait until the next step becomes clear. But we can be confident that God knows the whole plan, it will be for our good even when it involves risk, and God will provide what we need when we need it. The Christian life has always involved walking by faith, allowing God to prove Himself faithful.

A VIP Pass to Epiphany

Today marks the beginning of Epiphany, the liturgical season that focuses on the meaning of the incarnation.  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” Jesus drew near to appear in our midst.  This is a time to celebrate that Christ has come, our waiting was not in vain.

The Wise Men in Matthew’s Gospel give us a wonderful illustration of the magnitude of Jesus’ advent on Earth (Matt. 1-2).  One of the most compelling explorations of who these unknown men were can be found in Lew Wallace’s 19th century epic, Ben Hur.  The first 40 pages of the novel dream about who the 3 men might have been and how God called each of them to pursue a mysterious star.  Most scholars now believe that the men likely came from Babylon, while Wallace postulates that one was Greek, one Indian, and one Egyptian.  We can be nearly certain that this is inaccurate, but the heart of his character choices reflects a true knowledge of for whom the Savior came: everyone.

Ben hur

Wallace paints a picture of the men converging part way through their journeys, each having received a calling and an assurance from the Spirit that they would be led to other seekers of Truth and would all be led to the Redeemer. When their paths come together, they pause to share a meal:

“Speaking together they said this simple grace: ‘Father of all – God – what we have here is of Thee; take our thanks and bless us, that we may continue to do Thy will.’ With the last word they raised their eyes, and looked at each other in wonder. Each had spoken in a language never before heard by the others; yet each understood perfectly what was said. Their souls thrilled with divine emotion, for by the miracle they recognized the Divine Presence.”

One by one they share their stories of how God spoke to them and how the star first appeared. One by one they followed it to this meeting point and their joy and awe increased with each story from their brethren.  As night fell, they gathered their supplies to continue their nocturnal quest together.

“By and by the moon came up. And as the three tall white figures sped, with soundless tread, through the opalescent light, they appeared like specters flying from hateful shadows. Suddenly, in the air before them, not farther up than a low hill-top flared a lambent flame; as they looked at it, the apparition contracted into a focus of dazzling luster. Their hearts beat fast; their souls thrilled; and they shouted as with one voice, “The Star! The Star! God is with us!”

What a lovely picture of God bringing people together from far-flung countries and cultures, unifying them with the Spirit, and using them to send the Good News back with them so all may know that the Messiah has come.  While the historical nationality of the Wise Men was likely not what Wallace imagined, we see Paul taking the Gospel to the Gentiles throughout the Roman empire, and an Ethiopian eunuch coming to faith in Christ (Acts 8) and taking the Good News back to northern Africa. Some 300 years later, one of the greatest Christian theologians of all time would be called forth from Africa, Augustine of Hippo.  Jesus was not a local god or a local blessing, but a game-changer for the whole world.  The Wise Men and the ministry of the early Church show us that while Christianity may claim an exclusive Truth, it does not have an exclusive guest list.  Christ came for all people and the entire world is invited to consider what His drawing near means for them.

2-the-three-wisemen-simon-secret-

If you would like to study the Matthew account in more depth, feel free to draw from this study guide:

Advent: Dream weaver

For tonight’s passage we’re going to keep track of how many times God communicates through people’s dreams, and how many prophesies are fulfilled through the birth of Jesus. Who wants to keep track of the dreams? Of the prophesies?

Matt. 1:18-25

  • What was Joseph planning to do when he found out his fiancée was pregnant? Why was divorcing her quietly actually a very merciful thing to do at the time?
  • What does the angel tell him to do in the dream? What does Joseph do?
  • Someone look up the verse quoted in 23, Isa. 7:14
  • What stuck out to you about this account, or what’s something that you hadn’t noticed before?

Matt 2:1-12

  • Who are these men that come to see Herod? What are they looking for?
  • What is Herod’s reaction?
  • Someone look up Micah 5:2
  • What is his response back to the wise men?
  • What do the wise men do?
  • What dream do they have? How was God protecting Jesus through this?
  • What kind of person notices a new star in the sky and follows it to a distant country? What would it have been like to go on such a journey?
  • What does this incident of God drawing foreigners to Jesus’ birth tell us about God’s love for every nation?

Matt. 2:13-15

  • What is the next dream that happens in this passage? Why do they flee to Egypt?
  • Someone look up Hos. 11:1
  • What would that have been like for them?
  • Where else in the Bible have we seen Israelites going to Egypt for refuge? In what ways is Jesus identifying with His people through this experience?

Matt 2:16-23

  • What does Herod do?
  • Someone look up Jer. 31:15
  • Where else in the Bible have we seen a jealous ruler order infant boys to be killed? How is this another way that Jesus on an individual level follows Israel’s national history?
  • What other dreams happen? Where do Jesus and His family finally settle?

———-

  • What do you think of all these dreams and all of these OT prophesies?
  • As we heard in Ivan’s intro tonight, Advent is a time when we think about areas of our lives where we are waiting for God to show up. What comes to mind for you when you think about where you wish God would do something in your life or the world?
  • In these passages we saw God act with immense power to bring His plan of salvation into the world through Jesus. How does seeing God’s power in what we just read give you hope for His ability to work in your situations that may feel difficult or hopeless?