Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

Wise men asking odd questions

January 28, 2018

It has been a while since I’ve written about the Magi. Perhaps it is time to spend a little time with them. This is one of those stories in the Bible that we think we know, but maybe we haven’t giving it it’s proper attention. If you want to read the story, it is Matthew 2:1-18. 

The Magi are not Jews and they are not Romans, they are foreigners in every sense of the word. They don’t belong in Israel, they don’t belong in the Roman Empire, yet they show up in King Herod’s court looking for the king of the Jews because they want “to pay him homage.” Gentiles traveling to worship the Jewish king. And they ask the current Roman approved king of the Jews- Herod- where they can find the new king of the Jews. Notice they don’t pay homage to Herod, they are looking for Herod’s replacement. In fact they scare Herod and “all of Jerusalem”.

Frightened Herod needs to find this new King of the Jews. The chief priests and the scribes, people who should know about the birth of the King, can narrow down the location to Bethlehem. But Herod, the Roman approved king of the Jews, still needs the Magi to find Jesus. Herod tries to use the Magi for his own ends, sending them off to find the child.  The Magi find the child,Jesus and “overwhelmed with joy” they worship him. And then, they wisely pay attention to a dream and avoid Herod on their way home.

Often we end our reading here, with Herod tricked, Jesus worshiped by mysterious wise men and the Magi safely on their way home. A tidy and satisfying ending.

If we read farther we find that the rest of the story is horrifying. An angel warns Joseph and the Holy Family flee for their lives. Herod is “infuriated” by the actions of the Magi and kills all the children “in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under”. Even after Herod’s death, things are not safe in Judea for the Holy Family. Archelaus is ruler there and so Joseph takes Jesus and Mary to Nazareth in Galilee. It’s a grim ending to the nativity story.  Babies have died. Families mourn. The Roman Empire continues its oppressive rule.  The young boy Messiah is in hiding in Nazareth.

Look where Matthew’s emphasis is-  7 verses on Jesus birth, focused mostly on the disgrace of Mary’s pregnancy and 18 verses on the story of the Magi. Matthew tells a pretty grim story.

And there is truth, hard truth in this story. Kingdoms and rulers do not give up their power without a fight. And innocent people suffer. Babies and toddlers suffer. Salvation is a costly business for everyone.

The Bible, whether we like it or not, describes the world with a clear eyed realism. There is no fairy tale happy ending. The kingdoms and powers which resist God are strong and not to be trifled with. And yet, yet a voice cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord..” the beloved Son has come. The way is not easy, but God will not stop until God’s purposes are fulfilled. Which is for us, in our days, good news. The beloved Son has come and God will not stop until God’s purposes are fulfilled.



Maps of Faith

January 30, 2017

You may have heard someone say the Bible is a Christian’s road-map. The Bible, they say, tells us how to get to where we are going, complete with detailed instructions on the best way to travel through our lives. I don’t know about you, but that never made much sense to me. Personally, I don’t find road-maps in the Bible, I find stories, wonderful, complex, holy stories.

A road-map is designed to help us get from one place to another, typically in the most direct manner. Find a map of the Interstate Highway system and we can plan our route from New York to Seattle in 15 minutes, if we bother with a map. Most likely we’ll program a GPS or use the Google maps app on our phone. It will be fast, efficient, and easy. We won’t be bothered much by anything located between New York and Seattle. We will be in our private car, listening to our personally selected music , our climate control precisely set, our cruise control on, our seats comfortably adjusted, with our beverages in our convenient individual cup holders.  We can make our plan and never detour, never get lost. It is efficient, but not particularly interesting way to travel.  In my experience, that’s not how life unfolds, certainly not the life of faith described in the Bible.

And so I began to wonder, could the Bible is a map of some kind? If so, what sort of map is it? A state map? The bus route? A map of the world? A star chart? Is it a map of the fire exits out of the building?

I think the Bible is most like a topographic map, a map for a particular kind of travel.

Topographic maps require close, careful study. The longer we look, the more we discover. Topographic maps show us the terrain, the high places and the bogs. They show us which rivers have rapids and waterfalls.  They mark the deserts and the forests. They tell us which lakes last all year and which dry up in the heat of summer. The map shows us where to find springs and wells.

The contour lines on the map tell us how steep the climb up the hill will be and where we will find a gently sloping path into the valley. Glaciers and scrub land, forest and swamp , each are each accurately noted.

The trails of those who have traveled this way before are marked for those who follow. The paved road, the unimproved road, the scenic tour are all on the map. The foot trail, the switchbacks, the tough climb, and the dead end are on this map as well. If we study the map we may discover there is more than one way to get there from here.

The map helps us find the good campsites, where there is enough space and fresh water for us and the anyone else on the trail. These are the places where people can gather safely, tell their stories, and rest for a while. We can locate towns and villages.  We can also find the abandoned settlements, where a community could not sustain itself. A close study of the map may help us understand what happened. Were they too far away from reliable water or maybe prone to flood? Perhaps too high up for crops to grow?

We have the map because someone came here first, paid attention to what was around them, and left a careful record for us. The map can’t tell us everything we need to know, but it helps us keep our bearings.

It seems to me the Bible is most like a topographic map. We are shown the lay of the land. Given a terrain of faith. We are shown the contours and textures of the land by those who went before us. They left us the record of travels through mountains and valleys. They show us where people wandered off the path and they point the way back. Dangerous cliffs and dry wells are all marked out for us. But also, we find where the rough places turn into a plain. We find the way out of a dead end canyon. And we find the place good, fresh water is always present. The places that sheltered other travelers are marked. We are able to rest where pilgrims have always rested safely. The Bible, if we let it, changes us from travellers and tourists into pilgrims.

We must chart our own way through the wilderness and find our own path, but we  needn’t travel blindly. We have the Bible, carefully and lovingly written, handed on from traveler to traveler. It’s more concerned with safe passage than speedy travel.  And if we are willing, there are fellow travelers around, companions for the journey.

Topographic maps and the Bible, each in their own way, help us appreciate the land around us and they help us to walk with intention and care. They give us the courage to explore the country we are passing through.  Because it is as much about the pilgrimage as it is about the destination.

Note: This is a revised blog post from Feb 29, 2008.

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