Do the Magi Belong in Manger Scenes?

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. –  Matthew 2:3

It seems every Christmas there is a myth buster who will tell us that 3 figures in our manger scenes do not belong there.

Next to the shepherds, sheep, cows, and the holy family are the wise men, kings or magi. Critics graciously remind us that we don’t know how many there were, and they likely arrived a couple of years later. And they probably weren’t kings, despite the shape of the figurines and the title of the famous song.


The Magi Journeying, by James Tissot

Such myth busting does not concern me. I paid too much money for my manger scene to leave out three pieces until January. Also, the magi are extremely  important precisely because they DO NOT belong there.

These magi were likely “magicians,” not like Harry Potter, but more like astrologers. They were the type that would write the daily horoscopes for the Baghdad Daily News. To 1st century Jews, they are pagan astrologers from enemy territory.

Imagine the chaos that would ensue if officials from Iraq, Syria or Iran were to approach Prime Minister Netanyahu. They want to know where to find a new Israeli leader – all based on reliable intelligence that was unavailable to Israel. That’s pretty much what the magi are doing. Early readers of Matthew 2:1-12 were probably shocked and possibly offended by their inclusion in this story.

Imagine putting out of place figures in manger scenes in churches and front lawns: Batman could be standing on the roof of the manger. The Avengers, who were watching their sheep at night, could be visiting the newborn Jesus. Garden trolls, instead of cows and sheep, could be gathered around the manger.

People might be shocked and offended by these figures that do not belong on a manger scene. But people would stop their cars and pay attention.

Shocking misplacements persist throughout the Gospels: Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, corrupt tax collectors, despised Roman soldiers, and ostracized lepers, and pagan astrologers: Often God chooses to reveal himself to people who do not belong, not to “devout” believers.

If you have 3 king-like magi in your manger scenes, please know that they do not belong. This is precisely why we need to keep them there.

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Humiliation at Christmas

They all condemned him as worthy of death. Then some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, “Prophesy!” And the guards took him and beat him. Mark 14:64-65

As we enter Advent, I’ve been thinking of the cross more than the manger. It is the cross that saves us, not the manger. The cross is the demonstration of God’s radical love towards us. The cross is our  example of the radical love we are to show others. The cross reminds us of the seriousness of sin, and Christ’s victory over it. Not the manger.


The Flight into Egypt, Edwin Longsden Long

But the manger is important: While the cross shows us Christ’s humiliating death, the manger shows us His humiliating beginnings. It was a prelude to the kind of life that Jesus was to live.

Philippians 2:7-8 tells us that Jesus laid aside His divine majesty, took on the limitations of being human, and experienced the difficulties, sufferings and sorrows that all people do.

We see this in the Christmas story:

He likely endured the suspicion of being an illegitimate child. This seems to be implied in John 8:41, and 2nd century critics of Christianity made this accusation. Plus, Mary and Joseph’s friends and relatives understood simple biology and could do simple math.

He was born among commoners in anonymity in a place of little importance:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,  though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel…” (Micah 5:2).

He was born into poverty. Mary and Joseph were too poor to offer a lamb as a temple sacrifice, so they offered two pigeons instead (Luke 2:22–24; Leviticus 12:7-8).

His family soon fled Bethlehem to live as refugees in Egypt (Matthew 2:13-18). He grew up in an area with such poverty and bad reputation that his disciple Nathaniel once said, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46)

His material status didn’t change during  his 3 years of ministry. Jesus commented on his economic status when he said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).

Jesus preached from borrowed boats, multiplied borrowed food, rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed colt, and was buried in a borrowed tomb.

Jesus left his throne to live in humiliation and poverty with us, to give us His life and his friendship. This very thing is stated in 2 Corinthians 8:9:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

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Jesus and Black Friday

For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 1 John 2:16

Many retailers will open their doors this Friday at midnight, ushering in the Christmas shopping season. Black Friday translates into commercial success for stores and malls. Shoppers are treated to special discounts, parking lot camping experiences and minor injuries. Employees have their holidays and time with families cut short to help the masses get this year’s most popular toys before they fly off the shelves.


Adoration of the Kings, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Some would call this a part of the American Christmas experience. Others would call it another symptom of consumerism. The latter has been around since the early 20th century.

The industrial revolution created mass production, which in turn created an economic crisis: the supply of goods grew beyond consumer demand. The answer was to manipulate the desires of people and encourage spending through advertising. As a result, we are continually urged to fulfill our desires by consuming a broad range of goods and experiences.

We are all deeply affected by consumerism: it shapes how we think, act and even run our churches.

We face the constant temptation to confuse desires with needs. Our contentment depends on our salary, the car in the garage and the amount of gifts under the tree. As a result our life decisions are not guided by a desire to follow Jesus. Instead, our choices are guided by a desire for success and personal satisfaction.

Christ calls us to faithfulness. The world needs disciples of Jesus who are generous, compassionate and other-focused. Before you grab that toy or click that mouse, remember Jesus’ call to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

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Will God Protect Me From Temptation?

“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26:41

The true nature of our faith doesn’t usually come to light until we are faced with our own weaknesses. Not our Sunday morning attendance record. Not our work on a service project. Not a well crafted sermon or Bible study. (All of these are very important.) It is only when we are tempted can we know the true strength of our faith.


James Tissot (1836-1902). You Could Not Watch One Hour With Me 

When we are overcome by temptation, it often means we haven’t been vigilant—that we’ve stopped pursuing the God who has pursued us. In the aftermath of temptation, we recognize a spiritual weakness, and hopefully we use this failure to grow closure to God. We become wiser—but we do so remorsefully.

Both spiritual weakness and vigilance are illustrated in the garden of Gethsemane. In His last moments, Jesus requests that His closest disciples stay awake with Him to pray (Matt 26:38). But while He prays, the disciples fall asleep. At first Jesus’s instructions to pray seem like a request for spiritual and moral support. Jesus is facing a horrifying and painful death, and he wants his disciples to pray fervently for him.

But in just a few verses later, Jesus explains the true reason for prayer request: “Stay awake and pray that you will not enter into temptation” (Matt 26:41). Staying awake is associated with resisting temptation. The disciples rest their eyes, and they pay a high price for it. Because of their spiritual laziness, they are not prepared for Jesus’ death, even though Jesus had repeatedly prepared them for this. When they are tempted at the point of their weakness, they abandon the one they love out of fear (Matt 26:56; 75).

In this same passage, we also see what vigilance looks like. “Deeply grieved, to the point of death,” Jesus turns to His Father in prayer. He boldly requests relief from suffering, and when it is not granted, He submits to God’s will.

Being vigilant means constantly seeking guidance and refuge from the God who provides it. Keep pursuing the God who pursues us. We don’t know what challenges and temptations we will face, but God does. Pray for Holy Spirit to provide you with strength and discernment when they do come.

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Should Churches Be Large?

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…” Matthew 13:31

Christians admire mega churches and corporation-sized Christian non-profits. They have amazing capacity to take on large projects and to deliver the goods. Both have a large capacity for innovation and setting trends, and they can create specialized ministries for special audiences.

Smaller churches often admire and try to copy churches that attract thousands of worshippers, hoping to experience similar success. The desire for numerical growth often takes its cue from modern capitalism than it does the Gospel.


The Mulberry Tree, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

This is not to say that a declining church that has lost its passion is okay. A church steeped in tradition that has plateaued in membership is not okay. These are not good examples of small. Jesus has called us to bear fruit (John 15:16).

But in another sense Jesus did say, “Small is great.” He often talked about the kingdom of God in terms of small things. Consider just a few comparisons:

  • The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which “is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree.” (Matthew 13:32).
  • The kingdom of God is like yeast “that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough” (Luke 13:21).
  • God is like a shepherd who goes after one lost sheep when 99 percent of his flock is safe. (Luke 15:3-7).

What do Jesus’ words about small things say to churches?

The comparison to the mustard seed that grows into a great bush teaches us about small beginnings that turn into great blessings. The woman’s dough teaches us that great ministries often have hidden beginnings. The shepherds’ looking for the lost sheep teaches us that true joy is found in the rescue of the one.

God does not want a marketing plan. God does not hold media events. There are no flashbulbs going off when God begins to work. God is more concerned about the one than the large crowd. God wants to begin in a small, hidden way, because God is full of surprises.

What doesn’t start small doesn’t start at all. Churches and ministries start small, but their blessings can become great in the lives of those they minister to. If the church is faithful in doing the small things, they will ultimately produce big blessings to the world. That’s how the kingdom of God works.

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How Can We Always Be Happy?

…even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy. 1 Peter 1:8

Sometimes we struggle to grasp the biblical view of joy because of the way it is described today. We might confuse joy with happiness. The word happy can be sentimental, and happiness can be understood as an emotional state.

The Common English Bible, a translation sponsored by my denomination, even replaced the word “blessed” in the Beatitudes with the word “happy” (Matthew 5:1-12), possibly sending the message that Jesus wanted us to live in a continual state of carefree delight.

Many songs have been written with the theme of happiness, but one that stands out to me is Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” I didn’t realize this in the 1980’s, but I’ve noticed recently that the words “Don’t worry, be happy,” can be interpreted as instructions and not advice.

paul-silas-in-prison.William Hatherell

Paul and Silas in Prison, William Hatherell

The Bible, perhaps like McFerrin, instructs us to be joyful. We see this command numerous times in the Psalms (32:11, 34:2, 66:6, 96:11, 97:12, 105:3, etc.) We are to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16) Joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Everyone experiences sadness, and so did Jesus. He was called “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3). The author of Ecclesiastes tells us, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting,”( 7:2a). Feelings of sadness, depression and despair are normal, even for disciples of Jesus.

However, joy is not like what we often consider to be happiness. It is not an emotional experience that happens to us. It is something we willfully do and we are commanded to do. Paul writes to the Philippian church, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (4:4). Not occasionally or when we are in the mood. Keep in mind that Paul wrote this letter from prison where he is facing death. Yet he tells the Philippian believers that they should rejoice despite his circumstances.

How is this possible?

Paul gives us a practical way forward in that same passage: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (4:8).

This is a call to focus our attention on what God has done for us in Christ. When we find ourselves depressed, down, irritated or unhappy, we can return to the source of our joy, and see how our difficult circumstances are insignificant when compared to the enormous riches in Christ.

God commands us to experience true joy. Not just in heaven someday. Not when circumstances take a turn for the better. Not when sorrow and darkness finally lift. God wants us to taste real joy today.

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Does God Ever Ignore Us?

How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1)

Every Sunday in worship we pray for our homebound members, the sick and the hurting. During the week we ask God for patience with our children, peace during a stressful day at work, and healing for a dying relative. Sometimes we can say that God answers prayers. Sometimes we wonder why God doesn’t answer us.

Perhaps God is testing our patience, and we have to wait for God’s timing. Perhaps God is answering, and we just don’t realize it. But the Bible also teaches us that there are specific things in our lives that hinder prayers.

The sorrow of king David

King David’s Sorrow, by William Brassey Hole 1846 – 1917

Unresolved conflict

In Matthew 5:23–24 Jesus instructs his disciples that cannot come before God in worship if we have unresolved conflict with a brother or sister in Christ. We are to “first go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Jesus was talking specifically about worship, but since prayer is a part of our worship, our prayers are hindered when we don’t settle a conflict with a brother or sister in Christ.

Selfish motives

Even when praying sincerely, we sometimes put our own interests above those of others and God. Our confidence comes from asking “according to God’s will.” (1 John 5:14-15). We do not receive what we ask for because we “ask with wrong motives.”  (James 4:3). God will not answer our self-centered, self-serving prayers.


God will provide everything we need for godliness: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord.” (James 1:5-7).

Marital Discord

1 Peter 3:7 urges husbands to be considerate and respectful of their wives, “so that nothing will hinder your prayers.”  The Greek word translated “hindered” literally means “cut off.” If we don’t deal with problems in our marriages, our prayers are cut off from God.

Unrepentant Sin

The writer of Psalm 66 gives us a great lesson on prayer. Being guilty of sin does not disqualify us from the privilege of coming into God’s presence. But verses 17-20 shows us how harboring sin in our lives is the biggest barrier to prayer:

I cried out to him with my mouth;
his praise was on my tongue.
If I had cherished sin in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened;
but God has surely listened
and has heard my prayer.
Praise be to God,
who has not rejected my prayer
or withheld his love from me!


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