Whether you read these words before Christmas or not, in the church year we’re still in the Christmas season; it straddles the Old Year and the New, ending on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany.
The Epiphany – which stretches to a whole season between Christmas and Lent, ending on February 15 with Christ’s Transfiguration – celebrates the spread of the Gospel to us Gentiles. Epiphany itself (January 6) uses as its primary symbol the wise men and their momentous arrival at the house where the by-then toddler Jesus lived (as Matthew tells us, contrary to the traditional picture of the Magi with the shepherds at the manger).
Though Matthew’s gospel doesn’t specifically say, it could only have been the Spirit of God who revealed the Star and its significance to these pagan seers, urging them to make the long trek to Judea, not merely out of curiosity but to bring costly gifts, and to understand that the child they saw before them when they arrived was a king, and worthy of worship.
As the year is nearly over, so my husband, Ed, and I are just about finished with our read-through of the Bible begun on January 1. What has struck us in book after book (especially in the Old Testament) is how God uses his creation and us, not just his own people but unbelievers – individuals and nations – for his purposes.
Such as the wise men. They appear to have been changed – converted – by God’s use of them, by what the Star revealed, through their long trek, then culminating in their special encounter with the God of heaven and earth in tiny human form. They had to make the journey. They knew ahead of time, through God’s revelation in the Star, that they would pay homage to a king. They didn’t buy those precious gifts on the way or as an afterthought.
Idols in their hearts
Heart change, however, was far from the case for many of the idol worshipers we learn of in the Bible who became agents of God’s will. Finally no longer withholding judgment, God used Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Cyrus, Darius and others to punish his own people “who were no longer his people” – who, encouraged by their millstone-worthy leaders, had “set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces,” as Ezekiel puts it (14:3). Indeed, even in exile they were doing despicable things that not even most of the pagans thought of doing.
Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar, despite Daniel’s steady and righteous influence, gave periodic impressive lip-service to the powerful God of his Israelite exiles, but even after God’s radical, shocking means of subduing his out-sized, self-regarded divine ego (his long stint in the fields as essentially an animal), he remained his arrogant pagan self who thought he himself was worthy of worship. Ditto for Belshazzar, who also thought he ought to be worshiped. The list could go on.
We’ve all experienced God working in our lives as his people. But how often do we think much about God still being at work, for his purposes, both in the nations of our current world and in the individual lives of unbelievers – sometimes in blessing, sometimes in judgment (though we need to be careful about how we make pronouncements about the latter). God has not changed. He is still in sovereign control of his world, as he always was and ever will be.
As we look toward another year the knowledge that the God who created and saves us is in control of all things, from cosmic star bursts to sparrows falling and hairlines receding. That he works all things together for good to those who love him is indescribably comforting, and a cause for gratitude and worship.
Ye nations round the earth, rejoice
Before the Lord, your sovereign King,
Serve Him with cheerful heart and voice;
With all your tongues His glory sing.
The Lord is God;’tis He alone
Doth life and breath and being give;
We are His work, and not our own;
The sheep that on His pastures live.
Enter His gates with songs of joy,
With praises to His courts repair;
And make it your divine employ
To pay your thanks and honors there.
The Lord is good, the Lord is kind;– Isaac Watts (Psalm 100)
Great is His grace, His mercy sure;
And the whole race of man shall find
His truth from age to age endure.
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