Editor's note: the following is an excerpt from the introduction to the just-released FaithLab ebook: Finding Our Way with the Magi: A Daily Guide Through the Season of Advent. In America, as soon as merchants take Halloween merchandise from the shelves, they begin putting up the first signs of Christmas, nearly two full months before Christmas Day. You can’t fault them for getting such an early start. Sales in October, November, and December can account for as much as half of their yearly sales.
By and large, Americans have bought into the idea that Christmas is about giving and receiving gifts. Should we give credit or blame to the astrologers who followed the star to the place where Jesus was born for starting this Christmas tradition? After all, they came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh on that first Christmas.
While gift giving is a joyous practice, some have made this the central part of the holiday season. We can’t find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes because He is buried under a mountain of wrapping paper, bows, and ribbons that lie beneath hundreds of shining lights, which we hang on our trees and in our homes.
In the midst of all the gift giving, decorating, and other Christmas festivities, if we do not intentionally focus on our relationship with Jesus during the days leading up to Christmas, we will fail to allow the One whom the season is all about to cast any light on our lives. Consequently, darkness will crowd out any real joy, peace, love, and hope that we might give or receive. Most of us will hang lights to decorate during the holidays, but more importantly, we need a Light to shine in the darkness of our lives to help us find our way through Advent.
Unfortunately, too many people move through these days before Christmas, called Advent, to Christmas Day and beyond, and find that the season feels as artificial as the trees they place in their homes. Like clowns, many people paint on their smiles. Many go from party to party looking for an escape to numb their feelings of loneliness and emptiness. They pretend to be happy right through New Year’s Day.
Finally, when the holidays are over, they peel off their fake smiles and awake to the realities of huge credit card debt, empty houses, trees they have no desire to take down, but no desire to leave up, and the beginning of what feels like depression. Some even think they hate the holidays and are grateful for one thing—that the holidays come only once a year. Isn’t there something we can do to prevent such a thing from happening?
Even if the above doesn’t describe you totally, many of you have experienced enough of the holiday blues to know that the season brings its own set of challenges in the midst of its promised good cheer.
We are all on a journey, just like Joseph and Mary so long ago. We all have plans, but our plans get interrupted; they can change in an instant, for good or bad. The couple didn’t plan on making a trip to Bethlehem in the ninth month of Mary’s pregnancy. Thanks to Caesar Augustus, Joseph had no choice but to travel back to his hometown to be counted for tax purposes. They didn’t plan on there being no room in the inn. With no way to call ahead for reservations, there was no way to plan for Mary to have a comfortable place to bed, as her labor pains increased, and the intervals between labor pains shortened.
We all know what it’s like for plans to suddenly change. All it takes is for one of our kids to fall down the steps and break a tooth, and our morning is spent at the dentist’s office, instead of visiting Santa at the mall. All it takes is for a college daughter to come home for the holidays without an understanding that there are still curfews at home that must be obeyed. Otherwise, the peace of a holiday evening is filled with worry and anxiety as we wait and wait, far past midnight, for her to arrive home. All it takes is for an ex-spouse to change the day he or she wants the children to visit or for the boss to change his or her mind about the time we can have off from our job.
Life is full of changes we didn’t plan. The Christmas bonus is cut. The store that promised the special gift you had ordered for your child called and said it wasn’t coming after all. The spouse who promised he or she wouldn’t drink during the holidays is not only drinking, but is drinking more than usual. The receptionist called from the doctor’s office and said the biopsy was positive, and they need to schedule you for a follow-up appointment to discuss the next step. Plans get changed, and life can be turned upside down in a heartbeat. This Advent, at some point, your plans will get changed, too. It may not be life changing, but one never knows.
Of course, plans can also change for the better. We don’t tend to think a lot about these times because we absorb them into life like a hummingbird joyfully sucking sugar water from a feeder. Most of us don’t stop often enough to flag these God-given times and give thanks: an unexpected Christmas bonus, friends who call and offer to keep your children so that you and your spouse can enjoy a night together, a child or grandchild who hops in your lap and shows love to you without any coercion on your part. It’s those blind-sided, “I had no choice in the matter” changes that throw us off track and push us to our knees.
We are all on a journey, so we all need a light to shine in the dark places and in the shadows to illuminate our paths. Many people run their lives like a car, with no lights burning, going eighty miles per hour down a dark road. When they hit something, they say, “I didn’t see it coming.” They act surprised.
Others live a more measured, calculated life. Yet not even these people can be prepared for every event of life.
On that first Christmas, those who were living the measured, calculated lives were the Magi. They had studied the stars, and all their indications pointed them toward the birth of a Savior, so they came looking for the Christ Child to worship Him. They came bearing gifts. They weren’t caught up in anything materialistic. Their gifts were genuine expressions of adoration. Unlike much of our gift giving, they weren’t looking to receive anything in return other than the satisfaction of worshiping a child their signs indicated would grow to become a world ruler.
The journey was long. In the year 8 BC, Cuneiform tablets from Sippar in Babylonia revealed the foretelling of the rare conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that would occur the next year, a phenomenon that happens only once in 794 years. To the men of antiquity, this aligning of the planets had a special meaning. The planet Jupiter represented a world ruler while Saturn was considered the star of Palestine. The astrologers saw this as a sign that a world ruler would be born the next year in Palestine. Thus, they showed up in 7 BC in Jerusalem, just down the road from Bethlehem, looking for the birth of this king.1 (Scholars debate the exact date of Jesus’ birth.)
The journey likely took a month, maybe two. That meant it would have taken that long to return. Think of the sacrifices and planning that went into making the long, risky journey, just to worship, just to see this child, just to bring Him and His family gifts.
While we cannot prepare for every situation that has the potential to harm us, we can learn to stop being our own worst enemies. We can identify some of the “fast driving at night with no headlights” kind of living and eliminate those times in our lives. Secondly, we can learn to be intentional with the Light and shine Christ in the areas of our lives where we need to see the path with more clarity.
If we are going to find our way through Advent, we need the intentionality of the astrologers, who journeyed to worship the newborn King. How do we become more like the astrologers, whom we meet in Matthew’s gospel, the “Magi” as they are often called?
It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that the Magi must have spent many months, perhaps even a year in prayer, planning, and preparation for a trip that would take a couple of months across various terrain in unpredictable weather. Remember, they didn’t have a global positioning system. As men of faith, they probably began their trip by asking for God’s guidance. If so, they had the best model G.P.S. (God’s Positioning System) to help put their plans and preparation into action. We do know that God came to them in a dream, warning them not to return to Herod as they had planned.
We are also in need of God’s Positioning System. Advent is filled with planning and preparation of meals, trips, purchasing and exchanging gifts, parties, socials, and visits to see Santa. With all the demands of our time, the One in the center of the manger scene gets pushed further and further out of our picture so that the birthday for Jesus is more of a Christmas mourning than a Christmas morning for Him. He mourns that we’ve lost Him in the midst of it all.
Advent is a season designed to change that. It is a time of preparation for Christmas Day. Advent means “coming” or “arriving.” It’s a countdown of sorts to the birthday of Jesus. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the coming of Jesus in Bethlehem, the coming of Jesus in our everyday lives, and the promise of Jesus’ Second Coming.
There is no doubt that America has begun to crumble under her own weight of greed and self-indulgence. We are a country where self-sacrifice is becoming a laughable concept, and every person for himself or herself is the norm. We are the country where the executive often gets the golden parachute while the employee who’s worked for the company for twenty-six years gets the shaft. We are becoming a nation of greedy people who care only about self-preservation.
We have allowed greed to become so widespread that our financial institutions are crumbling around us to the point that the foundations of our society have been threatened. While our nation has focused military power on those countries that can attack us from without, the cancers of greed and unethical practices have been growing from within.
Consequently, companies have collapsed, driving down the stock market. Our prisons are running out of room to house inmates. Families are falling apart, and children find pleasure and attention in all the wrong places. The bar for dignity and decency has been lowered so low that we are no longer shocked; we seem to be headed for disaster.
However, there is one thing greater than all the evils of humanity; it is the hope of humanity, the hope that the greatest of evil minds and intentions of evil can be overcome by the hope and love of men and women, boys and girls, who refuse to allow circumstances of hardship and suffering to overwhelm their lives and steal all their joy. The suffering and hardship can be overcome only through the Advent of Christ.
What lies ahead for our world in the next decade? More suffering. I’m sure of it. But to the extent that we become like the Magi, there is hope. To the extent that we plan and prepare for the Advent of Jesus, we can find peace. To the extent that we begin a journey where our paths cross His path, there will be joy. To the extent that we put into action the changes our encounter with this Holy One of God has had on our lives, love will abound, true love can be known, and the world can be changed.
Begin your own journey with the Magi this Advent. Find the ebook of the devotional guide here.
John Michael Helms is the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Jefferson, Georgia, and the author of numerous books, including the just-released Finding Our Way with the Magi: A Daily Guide Through the Season of Advent.