WEEK 104 — December 28, 2016

MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS:
ADVENT / CHRISTMAS

 

week 104

 

We Ride to Find the King

 

Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the time when Herod was king. Soon afterward, some men who studied the stars came from the East to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the baby born to be the king of the Jews? We saw his star when it came up in the east, and we have come to worship him.”
Matthew 2:1-2, GNT

The familiar Christmas story of the Wise Men presents us with many more questions than answers:

•  Who were they?
•  How many of them were there?
•  Where did they come from?
•  What did they see in the sky that caused them to come?

The wisest of Bible scholars cannot give us a definitive answer to a single one of those questions. We usually assume that there were three Wise Men because they brought three kinds of gifts to Jesus; yet the Bible tells us nothing beyond referring to them in plural rather than singular terms.

Where the Bible is silent, creative imagination has been busy for twenty centuries. The Wise Men were kings, so it’s said; their names were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar; one of them was young, one middle-aged, one old; one was Caucasian, one Oriental, one black. Perhaps the strangest flight of imagination says that the Wise Men’s bones were eventually carried to Cologne in western Germany, where a great cathedral built in their honor still stands near the banks of the Rhine.

When two or more people throw in their lot together and make a long, dangerous, expensive journey as traveling companions, those people are likely to build a close relationship. The bond between them is similar to the bond that grows between soldiers in the same combat zone. I’ve never been a soldier, but I can say from experience that shared service as foreign missionaries can bring about bonding as well. So can working together day and night to conduct a camp for children or youth. The Wise Men must have experienced some such feelings of brotherhood.

Most Bible scholars agree as to why the Apostle Matthew was careful to include in his Gospel the strange story of the Wise Men from the East: It was a way of emphasizing that our Savior came for all people everywhere.

Contemporary Christmas greeting cards sometimes remind us, “Wise Men still seek Him.” Read below this one final Bible-based ballad, which accepts traditional views as to the number and names of the Wise Men. As you do so, keep in mind that all who seek to find and follow Christ Jesus are potentially or actually your brothers and sisters – your fellow members in the family of faith.

(A special word of thanks to those of you who have followed MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS: Family and Friends throughout 2015 and 2016! Don’t stop now with your habit of regular Bible reading, prayer, and meditation. Also, look for MIDWEEK MOMENTS: Creation and Creator, starting next week!)

Come, Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar,
come join in kingly quest!
For yonder shines a royal star,
still pointing toward the west.
“We ride, we ride to find the King
who is born in Israel:
the King foretold
from ages old,
our Lord Immanuel!”

Bring frankincense and myrrh and gold
to crown your Lord and King:
Bring all your treasuries may hold
and make your offering.
“We ride, we ride to find the King
who is born in Israel:
to Him we bring
our offering,
our Lord Immanuel!”

Be wary in Jerusalem,
where cruel Herod is.
You’ll find a Boy in Bethlehem;
the kingdom shall be his.
“We ride, we ride to find the King
who is born in Israel:
come join our quest,
His reign is best,
our Lord Immanuel!”

Bow down before your lord and King,
before him bend the knee;
the Christ Child you are honoring
shall rule eternally.
“We ride, we ride to find the King
who is born in Israel:
your voices raise
and with us praise
our Lord Immanuel!”

O God, help me to remember that anyone “who serves my Father as a son is surely kin to me.” Guide those wise men and women, those wise boys and girls of every race and place, who truly seek the Savior of the world. Amen.
(Quoted from William Arthur Dunkerley writing as John Oxenham, “In Christ There Is No East or West”; in the public domain.)

Copyright © 2015 by Perry Thomas

WEEK 103 — December 21, 2016

MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS:
ADVENT / CHRISTMAS

 

week 103

 

Sonnet in a Stable

 

Then he turned to his disciples and said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” Luke 10:23-24

The title above is almost a contradiction in terms — somewhat like speaking of a wealthy pauper or a towering midget.

A sonnet is one of the most precise and elegant forms of poetry in the English language. It makes strong demands on the poet: Each sonnet must always have fourteen lines — never more, never less. Each sonnet must follow an intricate rhyme scheme and arrangement of sections.

A stable, on the other hand, is strictly utilitarian. Whether large or small, it is only a building for animals, not intended for human habitation. Its earthy character comes out in the teasing proverbial reproof for bad manners or boorish behavior: “Were you raised in a stable?”

Somehow it seems out of place, even contradictory, to find a “Sonnet in a Stable.” How much more strange and shocking it is to find a son in a stable! Baby boys don’t belong in the midst of the stink and filth of a place where animals are being kept. Especially . . . a baby boy who is the Son of God.

The place in which God’s Son first appeared on earth has been inspiring wonder for twenty centuries: Not in a palace, not in a mansion, not even in a decent dwelling-place, not in a picturesque spot somewhere outdoors in God’s beautiful world of nature, but in the crudest and most commonplace of man-made structures: a stable.

Perhaps it is significant that none of the prophecies about the coming of the Christ ever mentioned such a thing. There is no hint of it in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. You can find Biblical predictions of sorrow and pain for the promised Messiah, most notably in Isaiah chapter 53. But you will look in vain for any mention of such a humble place for the Savior’s birth.

Perhaps Jesus himself was obliquely alluding to this fact in the verses quoted above. The very first one in this two-year series of Scriptural meditations, which also presents a keynote for all of these MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS on FAMILY and FRIENDS, is “From Such as These Christ Jesus Came” (see week 1). Christ Jesus came from — and to — poor ordinary people, who sometimes need to make use of a something as homely as a lowly cattle shed.

Thus “Sonnet in a Stable” becomes an apt metaphor for the miracle that happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. That’s why the following Bible-based poetic meditation has been written in the form of a sonnet. Note the interplay between expectation and utter surprise, between faith and doubt, as you prayerfully read these fourteen lines:

Piercing cold it was, and past all seeming
he would come so still in winter night.
On the hay the cow and donkey dreaming
dreamt not of his coming, Light of Light.

Counselor, the Prince of Peace, Redeemer . . .
can this be the Boy on Mary’s knee?
Blind you were, O king, O prophet dreamer!
Never did you dream of this, or see.

Savior, Son of God, the Lord’s Anointed . . .
yes, of this you dreamed, for this you died.
But a stable for his birth appointed:
This you never saw nor prophesied.

Yet — had you seen, you would have nursed no doubt.
Today we see . . . yet shut the Christ Child out.

“O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray!
Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today!
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel!”
Amen.
(Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”; in the public domain.)

Copyright © 2015 by Perry Thomas

WEEK 102 — December 14, 2016

MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS:
ENTERPRISING WOMEN

 

week 102

 

Lydia’s Colony

 

We are a colony of heaven, and we wait for the Savior who comes from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 3:20
(The New Testament in the Moffatt Translation, rev. ed. London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. 1935. In the public domain.)

Has there ever been another church like the one at Philippi?

The Apostle Paul and his missionary partners Silas and Timothy had been stymied in their efforts to take the Good News elsewhere. Then in a vision they were told to cross the Aegean to a great seaport. Their customary modus operandi in a new city was to seek out the Jewish synagogue; usually they could hope to find some eager listeners there. But Philippi had no synagogue. In the entire city there were not the requisite minimum number of ten male Jewish worshipers.

Instead, Paul and his companions went out beside the river on the sabbath day. Just as they had surmised, a small group gathered there for Jewish worship, close to a source of water for their ceremonial washings. The leader of the group was a businesswoman named Lydia.

Was Lydia a widow who had inherited the business when her husband died? Or was she an enterprising woman who had built up the business on her own initiative? The Bible doesn’t tell us. It does tell us what her business was: selling cloth that had been dyed purple by a coloring agent obtained from a certain Mediterranean shellfish. Such expensive cloth was popular among people who had the money to pay for it.

Since the Bible refers to other women as being members of Lydia’s household, it seems likely that she provided employment for several of her sex. More than that: She led those women and girls to worship the Lord God Almighty. When she heard that God had sent his Son as a sacrifice for human sin, she gladly accepted the Good News and led her employees to do the same.

More than likely Lydia owned a spacious building, with room for living quarters as well as a business establishment. She invited the team of missionaries to make her home their base of operations while they were in Philippi (Acts 16:12-15).

Yet all did not go smoothly for Paul and Silas in Philippi. They were accused of interfering in someone else’s business – in this case, a sordid business of exploiting a pitiful slave girl who seemed to be possessed by an evil spirit. As a result of this complaint, the two missionaries were publicly whipped and thrown in jail. An earthquake set them free; it also provided them with an opportunity to lead the jailer and his family to Christ. (See “The Jailer of Philippi,” week 26 in MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS.)

Thus the congregation at Philippi had its strange beginning.
Who were charter members of the church, along with Lydia and her female employees? The Roman jailer and his family . . . and quite possibly also the slave girl whom Paul had miraculously freed from her affliction.

What a strange combination of new believers! Yet — the church at Philippi became the church that the Apostle Paul loved most. Witness his letter to the Philippians: It is the sunniest epistle he ever wrote, glowing with the warmth he felt both for and from his fellow believers in Philippi.

Read again Philippians 3:20 as quoted above. Then read this meditation, which looks in on the thoughts of that enterprising woman known as Lydia:

Folks here in Philippi, they like to say:
“Our city is a colony of Rome –
a station on the old Egnatian Way,
a taste of Tiber water far from home.”

I care but little for that Roman tie.
The Jewish colony means more to me:
We have no synagogue in Philippi –
of Hebrew households only two or three.

So that was why my shop-girls walked with me
beside the river on that sabbath day.
We met three men: Paul, Silas, Timothy.
We sat to hear the words they had to say.

You know the rest. God opened wide my heart.
I listened and believed the great Good News.
How could I, then, do less for my own part
than open wide my house for God to use?

My shop-girls pushed the purple cloth aside –
they’d all been baptized, too, along with me –
to make a place where Paul and friends could bide,
a place to meet with Christians such as we.

We make as mixed a group as you could meet:
The jailer and his kin, with ties to Rome;
the slave who used to scream out in the street;
my girls, who keep the Law they learnt at home.

What would you call us? Just a motley crew?
The lower class, with me thrown in for leaven?
Our latest letter named us something new:
Paul wrote, “We are a colony of heaven.”

O Lord of all, help us to remember that each person who is saved through the blood of Christ is part of “a colony of heaven.” Amen.

Copyright © 2015 by Perry Thomas

WEEK 101 — December 7, 2016

MIDWEEK MEDITATION:
ENTERPRISING WOMEN

 

week 101

 

Priscilla and the Young Preacher

 

A Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. . . . He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.
Acts 18:24, 26

While I was writing MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS, my wife and I received an invitation to attend a special worship service honoring an anniversary of the founding of a little old church in rural Kentucky where we had served together long ago while we were both in seminary.

Because of a conflict in scheduling we were not able to accept the invitation, but an Indonesian Christian friend helped us make a brief digital videodisc to send instead. On that recording, I said: “There must be a special place in heaven for members of smaller churches pastored by seminary students. Think of all the half-baked sermons they’ve had to listen to, all the half-cocked ideas they’ve had to put up with!” Then I went on to thank the members of that little church for the ways they (or their parents or grandparents) had helped my wife and me to become better prepared for other places of service.

If there is indeed such a special place in heaven, then Priscilla must be there — along with Aquila, her husband. Both of them were lay-people, but the Apostle Paul valued them highly as co-workers in the gospel. Three times in the Book of Acts, Priscilla’s name is listed first; she must have been the dominant partner, both in their marriage and in their joint business as tentmakers.

Apparently Priscilla also took the lead when a young preacher came to their church in the great Greco-Roman city of Ephesus (in what is now western Turkey). Rather than embarrassing Apollos in public by pointing out all the important things he apparently didn’t know, she and Aquila invited the earnest young man into their home. There they brought him up to speed concerning the Good News about Jesus the Christ. When Apollos later moved on from Ephesus to somewhere in Greece, probably Priscilla was once again the one who took the lead in issuing him a warm letter of recommendation (see Acts 18:27).

Preachers can be a great blessing to members of their congregations. Members of congregations can also be a great blessing to their preachers. Keep that reciprocal relationship in mind as you read the following Bible-based poetic meditation:

Have you ever heard a preacher
who believed he knew it all?
saw no need to seek a teacher,
once he’d heard the Master’s call?

That was how Apollos sounded
when he landed in our town:
Full of learned facts, well grounded
in the faith once handed down.

Newly from the seat of learning –
Alexandria, no less –
came Apollos, passion burning,
keen to preach and teach and bless.

Yet there seemed a strange omission:
John he knew, the desert cry,
John, who baptized for remission . . . ,
what of Him who came to die?

What of Him to whom John pointed,
when to Jordan’s banks he came?
Lamb of God, the Lord’s Anointed . . .
did Apollos know His name?

No. He knew no loving Teacher,
knew no cross, no empty tomb.
This we learned from our young preacher,
once the crowd had left the room.

My Aquila smiled and nodded,
so we took him home to stay.
There in privacy we prodded,
told him all we had to say.

First impressions are misleading.
Glad he was to hear the rest,
matched it with his Scripture reading –
truths in prophecy expressed.

Never was there such a preacher!
Sad we were to see him go,
glad that we had been his teacher,
sharing truths he did not know.

Thank you, God, for all of those in the family of faith who stay in the background, blessing and teaching and supporting those whose places of service are more prominent. Amen.

Copyright © 2015 by Perry Thomas