Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Auld lang syne

by John D Ramsey

When we lived in Minnesota, fireworks were illegal which heightened my joy when Daniel and I launched mortars at midnight New Year's Eve. At that time, I still wore a wristwatch, and earlier in the evening, I would synchronize it with the US Naval Observatory master clock. As the time neared midnight, I would watch the second hand, and Daniel would light the fuse on my mark. After a couple years, Minnesota relaxed its laws against fireworks, and so our midnight volleys ended.

Tonight as the clock reaches midnight, I will be sitting inside. The little girls will be asleep in bed. Lisa may be reading, watching television, or sleeping. I will be awake, but I do not have any fantastic plans. I have already commemorated 2008. In the darkness of the basement family room, tonight I cried for Mom.

January 1 is a capricious choice for New Year’s Day. The winter solstice occurred December 21. The new moon occurred December 27. Whatever astronomical alignment indicates midnight December 31, it is subtle by comparison. Yet western civilization commemorates the earth’s arrival at this arbitrary point in space calling it January 1. Lisa tells me that tonight astronomers will add a leap second to the calendar. Regardless of how arbitrary the choice, our commemoration of the moment must be precise. Moreover, regardless of the arbitrariness of the date, it releases an extant emotional response within the sentimental — to each his own Auld Lang Syne.

Someone long ago determined that today was the year’s end, and so tonight, I sit in the darkness and cry for my loss. I also think of the great potential the next year holds.

It is good to remember, and it is good to hope for the future. In ancient Israel, the month of the exodus from Egypt commemorated the New Year. God told Moses, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.” Exodus 12:2 (NIV) The highlight of the month occurred at the full moon — the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. The first Passover divided Israel’s history between the bondage of Egypt and the hope of the Promised Land.

Likewise, at the advent of a new year, we set aside what was, and renew hope for what will be. Year 2008 was a blessed year in many ways, and 2008 brought great sadness with Mom’s passing. Year 2009 promises new opportunities and will confront us also with its own challenges.

Tonight, however, I am thinking about the New Year’s Eve as a deeper metaphor.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

More magi

by John D Ramsey

Last week I wrote about the Magi who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the child Jesus. I was somewhat surprised by the number of web searches asking for “the meaning of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” I admit that I have been dismissive of this question largely because the word correlations in the New Testament are very few. The lack of information invites unfounded speculation, which can be unprofitable. I have heard sermons in the past delving into presumed symbolism of the three gifts of the Magi, but I have always been less intrigued by their gifts than I have God’s revelation of himself to men who were once far away from faith.

Nevertheless, Matthew mentions the three substances by name, and the poetry of Scripture invites us to discover the correlation within the Author’s mind. Therefore, I began searching for an answer. The New Testament mentions frankincense twice and myrrh three times. Aside from the account of the Magi in Matthew 2, the New Testament mentions frankincense among the commodities that the woman Mystery Babylon traded in Revelation 18. At the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Roman death squad offered Jesus wine mixed with myrrh as a sedative, and Jesus refused it. When Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus buried Jesus, they wrapped his body with myrrh and aloes. While we may correlate the gift of myrrh and the myrrh used at burial of Jesus, no similar correlation exists for the frankincense. Moreover, the gift of the Magi included gold, which also does not correlate to the crucifixion and burial.

Looking at the Old Testament, frankincense appears several times. English translations make it difficult to find every instance of the word frankincense; however, Strong’s Concordance shows 21 occurrences of the word. The special anointing oil used in the Tabernacle and Temple contained myrrh and the incense used in the Tabernacle and Temple contained frankincense. The Tabernacle and Temple also contained much gold. Likewise, the Christ child embodied in human form all that the Tabernacle and Temple represented. “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” Colossians 2:8 (NIV) It would not be too much a stretch to say that the gifts of the Magi attribute to Jesus the qualities of the Tabernacle and Temple. Nevertheless, the anointing oil and the incense of the Tabernacle contained more ingredients than only frankincense and myrrh. If the Magi’s gifts allude to the aromatic compounds used within the Tabernacle, they do so subtly. Nevertheless, this correlation, explores a powerful truth. In the past, God had at times occupied the Tabernacle and the Temple, but at the nativity, God became a man. Emanuel, meaning “God with us,” became the earthly tabernacle of the Almighty.

Frankincense was used extensively in the Old Testament sacrificial system. A freewill offering included flour, olive oil, and frankincense – a pleasing aroma to God. A sin offering, on the other hand, could not include frankincense. God considered an unworthy offering of frankincense to be blasphemous (Jeremiah 6:20). Myrrh, while used with the anointing oil, was not a component of the sacrifice. Nevertheless, Christ came to earth to become a sin offering. It seems unlikely that the frankincense would point to Jesus sacrificial death in the same way that the myrrh might. Perhaps the frankincense alludes to fellowship we have in Christ while the myrrh portends his sacrificial death.

Isaiah prophesies of the Messiah’s reign and speaks of many nations of the earth bringing gifts to Jerusalem; he writes,

Then you will look and be radiant,
your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and [frankincense]
and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.

Isaiah 60:5-6 (NIV)

Perhaps Sheba in this context refers to the same Sheba in Genesis 10 (from the east), rather than the Sheba in 1 Kings (presumed to be from the south). Yet the recipient of the Magi’s gift was the Christ child, and the recipient of the wealth of the nations in Isaiah is the nation of Israel. Moreover, the gifts in Isaiah come to Jerusalem and the Magi met Jesus in Bethlehem. It does seem like a stretch to cast the gifts of the Magi as a fulfillment of Isaiah 60.

In my previous reflections on the Magi, I asserted that they were most likely revealers of dreams from a tribe of the Medes. I based my conclusion of the word, magus, used in the New Testament, the Septuagint (specifically the Book of Daniel), and the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus. In Matthew 2, God speaks to men’s dreams four times. He warns the Magi to avoid returning to Herod. He tells Joseph to escape with Mary the child to Egypt. He tells Joseph in a dream to return to Israel after Herod’s death, and he tells him to settle in Galilee.

Another dreamer named Joseph went down to Egypt. In Genesis 37, the sons of Israel sell their brother into slavery. Ishmaelite and Midianite traders carried Joseph into Egypt. What cargo did the Ishmaelites carry with them? According to the New American Standard Bible, they carried, “aromatic gum, balm, and myrrh.” Frankincense is an aromatic gum or resin. Perhaps the same fragrances accompanied Joseph, the son of Jacob, on his journey into Egypt as accompanied Joseph, Mary, and Jesus on theirs.

Perhaps the irony, did not escape Joseph the husband to Mary. The earlier Joseph had been sent into Egypt because his dreams offended his brothers. Eventually, Jacob and all his sons joined Joseph in Egypt. The nation of Israel lived in Egypt until Moses led them in their Exodus.

Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escaped into Egypt to avoid death in their home country. They journeyed to Egypt because of the warning that God gave Joseph in his dreams. They stayed there until God led them out again. Both men’s journeys to Egypt pivot upon Hosea 11:1, which reads, “When Israel was a youth I loved him, And out of Egypt I have called my son.” Matthew 2:15 emphasizes this correlation, saying, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON.’”

Certainly, the Magi’s gift of gold, frankincense, and myrrh would have helped sustain Joseph, Mary, and the child, Jesus, while they were in Egypt. While there is fodder for meditation on the meaning of the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, perhaps the revelation of the meaning of the Magi’s gifts lies within the action of the Biblical account rather than within abstract and even far-fetched correlations with other Scripture. Both Josephs entered Egypt with aromatic compounds, both Josephs were guided by God in their dreams, and eventually both Israel, the nation, and Jesus Christ, the Son of God were called out of Egypt. Perhaps Matthew gives us the details of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to evoke the memory of the original caravan that carried the hope of Israel into Egypt. If so, the evidence of the prophet Hosea supports the correlation.

Perhaps, Matthew leaves open the meaning of the gold, frankincense, and myrrh because their meaning is complex. Perhaps together the three gifts invoke the memory of the Tabernacle worship and apply it to Emanuel. Perhaps the frankincense reminds of our fellowship with God being a pleasing aroma. Perhaps the myrrh reminds us that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again. Perhaps the gifts of gold and frankincense look forward to the day when Christ reigns over all the earth, and the nations bring their gifts to Jerusalem.

Perhaps even more simply, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh remind us that when we come to Christ we do not withhold our treasures from him, but rather we fall to the ground and worship him then give to him everything that we hold precious.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas reflections

by John D Ramsey
Wii finally did it. After 27 years of marriage and four children ages 24, 23, 11, and 6, we bought our first video gaming console. Why, because the Wii is active and social in nature – not to mention just a bit silly, which suits our family, too.

We celebrated Christmas on the 20th this year because that is when the big kids could come to Kansas City. Now they are home in Texas and Minnesota, and today (Christmas) is a project day in our house. We had grand plans for a turkey dinner today, but truthfully, we have indulged in Lisa’s fantastic cooking for too many days in a row. Not only that: we went to Pizza Bella Monday night for a sampling of their wood-fired pizzas (five pizzas for the seven of us was just about right). My critique: awesome! If you live near Kansas City or ever visit Kansas City, Pizza Bella is on the short list of restaurants you must try.

Dad came down for our Christmas celebration, too. He brought everyone gifts from Mom’s trinkets and gadgets. Dad did a wonderful job choosing what of Mom’s things to give to each of us. Memories of Mom and the thoughtfulness of Dad combined to make each gift treasured. The little girls cupped in their hands the glass figurines that Dad gave to them. Claire held hers up and said, “Look what Pa gave me.” I am not sure he saw her reaction, but I did.

The Wii was the about the only thing we bought for the little girls. Lisa bought Cara a KitchenAide food processor as well as several other smaller gifts. I bought Daniel a MXL v76t tube microphone. My operating theory is that men would rather have one gift that enhanced their arsenal than many smaller gifts. Lisa thinks that women would rather have many gifts than one of anything. The tube microphone seemed a bit exotic. I thought it might captivate Daniel’s imagination just a bit. He says it sounds different from his other microphones. I would like to assume it sounds better, but learning how to use a microphone is a bit like adapting to a new musical instrument – optimization requires experimentation. Daniel will send me audio samples in a couple days, when he does I will append them to this post.

Daniel bought his mom several bottles of Charles Shaw (Two Buck Chuck). We opened a Cabernet Sauvignon with our lasagna Sunday evening. It was drinkable and probably as good better than a house red at most restaurants. With all the rich food on the menu recently, I have taken to heart Paul’s instruction to Timothy, “No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach.” 1 Timothy 5:23 (NASB)

Daniel helped me get the Wii configured on the BenQ projector. Everyone in the room can enjoy watching the Wii on the eight-foot screen. I came downstairs to investigate Internet on the Wii and discovered that Claire had created a Mii that looked just like me.

A screen grab of my Wii-Mii. Daniel is entering frame on the left.
I tried bowling, but found that my Mii was a bit too over-celebratory. The shooting game was fun. While I am still curious about Internet browsing on the Wii, I am too cheap to spend $5 on a web browser. I was disappointed that the Wii could not play DVD’s. I am much to cheap to spend money on a full AV system, so for now we will have to swap cords when we switch from Wii to DVD.

This morning Lisa put new socks and underwear in gift bags, and the girls opened them at breakfast. It makes me wonder whether the girls will remember this Christmas as the year they received a Wii or whether they will remember it as the “underwear Christmas.” I will remember it for many reasons few of which have anything to do with gifts given or received.

  • It is the first Christmas since Mom’s passing.
  • It is the first Christmas our immediate family was not together on Christmas day.
  • It is the first Christmas that we shared our family celebration with someone yet outside the family – Daniel brought his girlfriend, Rhonda.
  • This year’s Christmas party was the largest we have ever hosted – over 30 people came for our Christmas open house.
  • Our hosting the white elephant gift exchange with Lisa’s extended family is becoming a tradition. Gabby and I teamed up and ended up with a giant remote control.

Last night we went to church and sang Christmas carols with friends. Holding candles in the darkened sanctuary, we stood and sang “Silent Night” a cappella. To a cynic it might seem cliché, but the simple beauty of the moment makes a compelling memory. It seems to me that Christmas is about memory. Celebrating the birth of Christ is certainly core to the collective memory, yet Christmas memories are compound.

Some people try to justify Christmas traditions by drawing straight yet implausible lines to Scriptural symbols. For instance, some people claim that their Christmas tree reminds them of the cross of Calvary. I suppose that is fine, but the Christmas tree in our home is a place to hang our best memories. Our sins were nailed to the cross of Jesus Christ to be forever forgiven and forgotten. Yet in our home, we hang ornaments on the Christmas tree to remember what and whom they represent. Mom always objected to idolizing the cross, anyway. Mom felt that people sometimes focused on the cross rather than focusing on the Savior. I suppose I let traditions be traditions without manufacturing a cause.

A Christmas tree in our home is not a sacred symbol. Rather it is a tradition of memory. I told the little girls that the Christmas tree serves as a reminder of everything for which we should be thankful. Many of our ornaments commemorate a personality or an event. Each is a monument to a memory and together they celebrate the story of our lives. Each year deepens the sentimentality toward the old ornaments and welcomes the new ones into this stream of consciousness we celebrate at Christmastime.

Last year Lisa gave me a squirrel because of my continuing battle to save our shake roof from destruction. This year my squirrel ornament hangs next to the reminder of Cara’s leopard print phase (was it a phase?).

When the big kids were little, I made Daniel this carousel tiger on a soldered copper wire armature using newspaper, masking tape, and papier-mâché. I made Cara a carousel giraffe, but it proved much more fragile than the tiger. Each Christmas, I expect to find the lost giraffe among the ornaments, but I think it has been lost along the way.

The older kids each were given a two-dollar bill for Christmas one year. Both bills stayed on the tree for several years, but now one is missing. Hmm.

My first baby’s first Christmas. I took the photo with an Olympus OM-2 with an 85mm f/2 lens and three Broncolor Impact strobe lights. I used a red gel over the hair light. For soft focus effect, I think I sprayed hairspray on a UV-filter. Lisa was not far off frame just in case Cara decided to lean out of the chair.

Lisa gave this ornament to me this year because it reminded her of jewelry I bought for her many years ago at Union Station in St. Louis.
This sampling of ornaments conjures for me deep feelings of love for my family and extreme humility and gratitude for God’s grace and mercy on behalf of my family and me. Celebrating Christmas is in every respect celebrating the grace of God. Where does God’s grace begin or where does it end? God’s grace toward me begins with the breath of life he granted me. His grace has continued through my life and expresses itself in my marriage, children, friends, the home he has provided for us, a fun job which pays the bills and more.

Yet most of all God’s grace appears in the person of Jesus Christ, who two thousand years ago left the glory of heaven to become a man. Emanuel, another name for Jesus, means “God with us.” The Apostle John puts it this way,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not . . .

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-5, 9-14 (KJV)
When Jesus became a mortal man, he became subject to death. Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” Yet Jesus had no sin. His sacrificial death paid the price for my sin. “So Christ was offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.” Hebrews 9:28 (KJV)

As Christmas “wraps up” around the house and I prepare to go back to the office tomorrow, I thank God for his grace. I thank him for life and love, but most of all I thank him for sacrificing his human life to grant me salvation unto eternal life.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh

by John D Ramsey

This week my children have impressed me with their generosity to each other and their generosity to those outside our family. Their giving has been kind, sacrificial, and even extravagant.

Lately, I have been thinking of other extravagant gift bearers: the magi who came to visit Jesus in Bethlehem. To understand the account of the magi’s visit we must first understand who the magi were. The English word, magic, derives from the Greek word magus. Yet it would be clumsy to interpret the historical meaning of the word by its modern connotation. The word magi occurs five times in the New Testament: three times in Matthew and twice in Acts. In Acts 8 and Acts 13, Luke writes of a Jewish magus named Simon. Simon was known in Samaria as “the Great Power of God.” Most English translations of the New Testament obfuscate the reference to Simon being a Magi. The NIV and King James refer to Simon as a sorcerer. The NASB refers to Simon as a magician, but translates the same word as magi in Matthew. The King James refers to the magi in Matthew as “wise men.” It is a shame when translators intentionally shade the meaning of words. With only five occurrences of a word in the New Testament, it is unjustifiable to alter the translation based upon context.

Thankfully, the word magi occurs in the context of history. In the Septuagint (LXX), the book of Daniel refers to magi eight times. The translators of the LXX understood that Hebraic and Aramaic references to magi in the book of Daniel referred to a specific class of men. In Genesis and Exodus the Hebrew word chartom, was translated in the LXX as sophistas, or wise men. Yet when the translators of the LXX encountered the same word in Daniel, they translated it magus. The LXX translators knew the distinction between the wise men of Egypt and the magi of Persia.

Herodotus disambiguates the meaning of magi, helping us understand both the Old Testament record via the LXX as well as the New Testament record. According to Herodotus’ The Histories – Book One, the Magi were a tribe of the Medes. Moreover, according to The Histories – Book One and The Histories – Book Seven, the Magi were well known for their ability to interpret dreams. In Book One, Herodotus writes about Cyaxares, saying, “This vision he laid before such of the Magi as had the gift of interpreting dreams, who expounded its meaning to him in full, whereat he was greatly terrified.”

Later in the same book, Herodotus writes, “The Magi are a very peculiar race, different entirely from the Egyptian priests, and indeed from all other men whatsoever.” Herodotus’ short editorial establishes two fantastic facts. First, he validates the distinction between Egyptian and Persian wise men that the Septuagint translators also understood. Secondly, Herodotus erases any distinction between the race of the Magi and the practitioners of mageuwn.

The magi in Daniel differ from the conjurers, diviners, and astrologers from Persia, too. In fact, the word for astrologer in the book of Daniel is the same word translated elsewhere as Chaldean. The vocation of magi coupled with the race of the Magi in the same way that the practice of astrology coupled with the race of the Chaldeans. What do you call someone who practices the vocation of a magus who is not of the Magi race? You call him a magus, or in the case of Luke’s reference to Simon, “a Jewish magus.”

When the prophet Daniel writes of magi along with enchanters, sorcerers, diviners and astrologers, each word is distinct in meaning. A baseball player and a football player are both athletes, but the sports are distinct. A dentist and an optometrist are both doctors but you would only go to one for a root canal. Consequently, when Matthew writes about the magi coming to see Jesus, we should not presume that they were astrologers, sorcerers, or anything else other than interpreters of dreams from a tribe of the Medes.

Likewise, when Luke writes of Simon the magi, we should likewise not presume that he was a sorcerer. Putting the English definition of magic and magician aside, we can see that Simon presented himself to be a Daniel – a revealer of dreams and a prophet of God. However, Luke tells us that Simon, the Jewish magus, was a false prophet.

Nebuchadnezzar refers to the real Daniel as the chief of the magi saying,
O Belteshazzar, chief of the [magi], since I know that a spirit of the holy gods is in you and no mystery baffles you, tell me the visions of my dream which I have seen, along with its interpretation.

Daniel 4:9 (NASB)
When Nebuchadnezzar referred to Daniel as the chief of the magi, he was not referring to Daniel as a practitioner of sorcery; rather, he acknowledged Daniel’s God-given ability to reveal dreams. Obviously, there is a distinction between Daniel’s gift of interpreting dreams and the occult practices of the magi. Yet, Nebuchadnezzar could only describe Daniel from his frame of reference so he called Daniel, “chief of the magi.”

The men who came from the east to worship Jesus were magi. To say that they were astrologers, conjurers, sorcerers, or diviners would be as clumsy as saying that Peyton Manning plays professional baseball for the Indianapolis Colts. Football Player == Athlete == Baseball Player is a logical fallacy. Peyton Manning played baseball in high school, but we cannot infer that by the fact that he plays football for the Colts. A magus might have practiced astrology or sorcery, but we cannot infer that by the title. Vocationally, the magi interpreted dreams. To assume that the magi were primarily astrologers ignores the history of the word.

Nevertheless, many teach that the magi were enlightened astrologers who were anticipating the Christ based upon Balaam’s prophecy:

I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
a scepter will rise out of Israel.

Numbers 24:17 (NIV)

The star and scepter in this passage, while messianic symbols, are figurative. Yet the magi witnessed a visible phenomenon. Applying this correlation to the magi and the star of Bethlehem opens the door to an infinite number of arbitrary scriptural correlations. With such rules of interpretation, you could construct anything from Scripture. Presuming that the magi were astrologers because they followed a star is as careless as presuming there were three magi because they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Yet people stumble on this question: How did the Magi know that the star of Bethlehem announced the birth of Christ? Church tradition has decided upon an unscholarly and impractical answer to that question. Presuming that the magi were astrologers who studied Old Testament prophecy, why did they need to ask Herod where the child had been born? The Jewish teachers of the law answered Herod’s inquiry without hesitation, paraphrasing the prophet Micah.

But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.

Matthew 2:6 (NIV)

This was news to the magi. When they left Herod and started toward Bethlehem, they again spotted the star. “[It] went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” Matthew 2:9 (NIV) Whatever the star of Bethlehem was, it was not an astrophysical entity. Nor is walking behind a light in the sky an astrological practice. Yet the light went ahead of them on the road and came to a stop over the house where Jesus was.

The star leading the magi is more akin to the pillar of fire and the cloud leading Israel in Sinai – a fully miraculous revelation from God. In modern astronomy, a star has a very precise definition, yet to the ancients a star was a small light in the sky. We would err to try to force a modern definition of a word upon an ancient text. We may never know why God led the magi by a light in the sky anymore than we will know why a host of angels appeared to the shepherds. God works the way he wants to work, and not necessarily the way we expect him to. The magi followed the light to Bethlehem because they believed it would lead them to Christ.

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Matthew 2:11-12 (NIV)

So how did the magi know that the star would lead them to the one born king of the Jews? I propose that the answer is obvious – although unstated. The magi knew about the Christ by the same means that they knew to go home by another way. If God led them away from Herod through their dreams, could he not have also revealed himself to them in dreams? These men were magi – they interpreted dreams. It is more probable that God provided necessary information to the magi in their dreams than presuming that the magi deciphered God’s plan by their intellect and superstition. Parsimony leaves little room for astrology in Matthew chapter two.

So, the dreamers came to Bethlehem to worship the child who had captured their hearts and their hopes. When they found the boy, Jesus, they presented him with their treasures of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. To kneel before the king of the Jews these men traveled hundreds of miles.

God revealed the birth of Jesus Christ to Jewish shepherds who were nearby, and he revealed the birth of Jesus Christ to the magi who were far away. The shepherds were close by both physically and figuratively, and the magi were far away both physically and figuratively. Yet in both cases, God put lights in the sky announcing that God had become man. The shepherds saw the glory of the Lord in the sky and heard the voice of the angel saying,

Fear not: for, behold,
I bring you good tidings of great joy,
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day
in the city of David
a Saviour,
which is Christ the Lord.

Luke 2:10, 11 (KJV)

Likewise, the magi saw a light in the sky, and God told them that this light would lead them to him who was born king of the Jews. Neither the shepherds nor the magi could have figured it out on their own. Rather God revealed himself to men inviting them to come into the presence of Jesus. Both the shepherds and the magi responded in faith and came to Bethlehem. Both the shepherds and the magi worshiped and glorified God.

The magi in Matthew 2 embody the mystery of God’s salvation. Through the person of Jesus Christ, he has reached out men who were far away. God met them in their darkness – the darkness of the night and the darkness of their dreams – to bring them by faith into the light of Jesus Christ.

As God reveals himself to us in the person of his Son, may we, too, like the magi come to worship him with our lives and with our resources.

Read more about gold, frankincense, and myrrh here.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


by John D Ramsey

Christmas comes early this year in our home. Cara and Daniel will be home on Friday; Dad will be coming down, too. Saturday morning we will celebrate a traditional Christmas. On Saturday evening, Lisa’s extended family will arrive for a soup supper and a white elephant gift exchange. According to family rules, Gabby is too young to play the game, so she will play with me. We shopped for our gift on Saturday night. We are keeping it a secret even from Lisa. We are hoping that it will be a popular item. Ultimately, whoever goes home with it should be pleased.

I have not always enjoyed the Christmas holiday. I remember years when I considered Christmas celebrations something to endure or ignore. I wondered what exactly Christmas celebrated. Were we celebrating Christ, or were we celebrating material prosperity? I thought, how could we reconcile the extravagance of the holiday with the humility of the manger?

I do not ask those questions anymore. This year, I am hyped about Christmas. Lisa and I hosted a Christmas party again this year. We invited more people than last year, and my only regret is that we did not invite even more. I am already looking forward to next year. I hope our annual Christmas party continues to grow in scope and renown.

Obviously my attitudes have changed. In retrospect, I think I can trace my change of heart. First, Santa Claus is noticeably absent from our house. Though Lisa decorates the house extensively, Santa Claus is  (almost) nowhere. Some might justify including Santa Claus in Christmas because the tradition of Christmas has evolved over the years. Others refuse to celebrate Christmas because of the supposed origins of the holiday.

I do not debate the origins of Christmas. As a family, we celebrated the incarnation of Jesus Christ at Sukkoth this year. Acknowledging the nativity in association with the Feast of Booths does not invalidate Christmas as a Christian holiday. Rather, if Sukkoth corresponds to the birth of Christ, then the Christmas season corresponds to the annunciation of Mary. Whether the day commemorates the birth or the announcement of the birth, the day celebrates Jesus Christ. In our family, we can celebrate the season of the incarnation of the Son of God twice each year, in September or October according to the lunar calendar and in December according to Christian tradition.

The celebration of Jesus’ birth leaves no room for Santa Claus. Santa Claus mythology secularizes Christmas. There is not room for two stories of Christmas. God spoke to Isaiah, saying, “I am the LORD: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images.” Isaiah 42:8 (KJV) Why disparage fact with fiction? Lisa and I have never pretended with the kids that Santa is real. I believe that adults who deliberately lie to young children sacrifice their moral authority in the process. “No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus.”A child's willingness to believe should not be abused by untruth.

Over the years, I have become first comfortable and now enthusiastic about the extravagance of Christmas. Just as the Old Testament Feast of Booths and the celebration of the tithe resulted in an economic blessing to the nation of Israel, so acknowledging the birth of Jesus Christ is an economic boon the nations that celebrate it. The misdirection of secular mythology cannot exceed the marvel of God becoming a man through the miracle of virgin birth. Those who celebrate Christmas acknowledge that Jesus Christ has changed the world even if he has not yet changed their hearts. The extravagance of Christmas displays the power of Jesus' nativity to captivate the hope of mankind.

Although the manger represents the humility of Christ, salvation through the blood of Christ is the most extravagant gift in history. I cannot justify a stingy celebration God’s amazing extravagance. Friends told Lisa today that our Christmas open house was the most extravagant Christmas party they had ever attended. Lisa did not know quite how to respond to the compliment. I am certain that parties that are more extravagant occur. Yet, if we are celebrating the advent of God’s spectacular grace, we should celebrate it appropriately to the best of our ability.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Trojan wars

by John D Ramsey

Lisa somehow managed to get a Trojan and a slug of malware on her computer this week. The suspected source is a malevolent company masquerading as an inexpensive telecom solution. No, I am not referring to Skype. If you want an inexpensive telecom solution, my advice is to stick with Skype. It isn’t AT&T, but it’s a good choice to back up mobile phones. Lisa has our Skype calls forwarded to her cell. That way people can call a local exchange in Kansas City while we retain our old numbers from Minnesota on our cell phones.

Back to the Trojan: Lisa’s Avast antivirus program updated daily, and every time I ran a full scan on boot, Avast would delete files from the System32 directory as well as from the recovery cabs. Regardless, the behavior remained. I could not navigate to helpful websites such as Avast blocked the popups from the domains I identified, but the viral behavior remained. The symptoms also included unfamiliar registry values in the HKLM\Software\Microsoft\Current Version\Run key. The data included a string such as “Run32dll.exe ‘C:\Windows\System32\filename.dll’,s” where the DLL called had absolutely nothing to do with Windows or any legitimate software vendor.

When I deleted an entry, it immediately regenerated. Navigating to another key and back again revealed that the Trojan was not so easily defeated.

When I looked for the file names referred to in the registry, they did not appear in Windows Explorer even though I had it configured to show hidden and system files. Nevertheless, with the computer disconnected from the Internet, I opened a command prompt, and entered:
C:\Windows\System32> dir *.dll /A H > dll.hell
This created a text file containing all the DLL’s with an attribute of hidden. I opened the dll.hell file in notepad and found the likely suspects by the last date written. From the command prompt, I entered:
C:\Windows\System32> attrib -h -s filename.dll
C:\Windows\System32> del filename.dll
This deleted some files, but on a few files I received “Access is denied” errors indicating that the files were resident in memory. For these files, I typed:
C:\Windows\System32> cacls filesname.dll /D Everyone
When the system prompted, “Are You Sure?” I answered with a quick “Y” keystroke. (Sure, I’m sure.) After denying permission to the DLL, I rebooted the system. Error messages appeared on boot saying that the file name was missing. I was then successfully able to delete the registry values that were causing the Trojan to load.

I repeated this process until no more values appeared in the registry and I could successfully navigate to and download Firefox. Microsoft just lost another loyalist in the browser wars.

It appeared that the Trojan had a keystroke logging component. Lisa took countermeasures to mitigate the damage. Now we wait to see.

Unfortunately, my router does not allow me to block traffic to a particular subnet, otherwise I would block all traffic to and from the Class B I need no information from the Netherlands, anyway. Maybe I'll get a better router for Christmas.

Disclaimer: If this information is helpful, I’m glad. If you don’t know what you are doing, I’m sorry, but don’t do it. If I’ve missed something important, please leave a comment.

Now that Lisa has her computer back, I know she'll be posting about the fun Christmas party we had at our house Saturday night.