"How Wise Men Celebrate Christmas"
(Delivered Sunday, December 23, 2001 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: "But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel."' Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also." When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way (Matthew 2:1-12).
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Many of us have heard the story of Jesus' birth so often that we have grown too familiar with it. Some of us have gotten so used to it that we run the risk of forgetting what a magnificent event it truly was. I hate the thought that we might "tune out" whenever we start to hear it again.
And yet, it's the only event in human history that - as the Bible tells us - the multitude of heavenly angels announced to the world by tearing the sky open and bursting into the human realms with songs of praise. "... Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people", the angel said to the shepherds on that night long ago. "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger" (Luke 2:10-12). And then, we're told, "... Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!'" (vv. 13-14).
What a piece of news this truly is! God has assumed human flesh to Himself, and has been born into the human family to save us from our sins! All heaven was eager to proclaim it! The angels were so thrilled to announce it that, if those poor shepherds were alive today, they'd all have received care for post-traumatic stress afterwards! How in the world could we ever get used to such an event?
If we should ever find that this most exciting, most earth-shaking of all pieces of news has become dull and boring to us, the problem isn't with the news - the problem is with us. It's we who have become dull and boring.
My hope is that, this morning, you and I will be awakened to a renewed sense of enthusiasm and joy for this wondrous day ... and for the wondrous story we celebrate on it. And I'm convinced that we will be enthusiastic and joyful - if we approach the One that this story celebrates in the right way. We need to have certain attitudes about Jesus already in place within us, before we can celebrate Christmas as we should. And looking closely at Matthew's story of the 'wise men from the East' can help us to cultivate those attitudes.
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Who were these 'wise men'? We sometimes sing "We three kings of Orient are; bearing gifts we traverse afar ..." But who said that they were kings? For that matter, who said that there were only three?
The Greek word that Matthew uses to describe them is "magos" (the plural form of which is "magoi"). It's a word that originates from the Persian and Babylonian language. And if you don't happen to care much for Harry Potter, this'll really bug you! The word means "magician" or "sorcerer". (This Greek word is, in fact, the same one from which we get the English word "magician".) We shouldn't think of them, however, as waving magic wands and wearing pointed caps like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia. They were more along the line of "scientific priests", who were experts in such fields as astrology, philosophy, religion, and medicine. Because they were specialists in the interpretation of dreams and visions, or as practitioners of various occultic arts, these were most likely royal priests or royal advisors that came from the easterly foreign regions of Babylonia, Persia or Arabia. In spite of the occultic nature of their profession, it appears that God had worked upon their hearts in such a way as to move them to seek Him.
The old Christmas carol is probably very accurate in saying that they "traversed afar" - perhaps as far as four to five hundred miles to get to Bethlehem. But there probably wasn't just "three" of them. The Bible tells us that King Herod, along with all Jerusalem, was troubled by their arrival; and surely the arrival of a mere three wise men wouldn't have been a cause for such alarm. Perhaps the number was more like three-hundred!
And why did they come? They came looking for the One who was born King of another people group - the Jews, because they had seen His star in the East and had come to worship Him. Can you imagine the bewildered looks that must have greeted this group of regal-looking intellectuals when they told the folks in Jerusalem this?
What "star" did they see? Some have suggested that it was a bright planet that arose in the eastern sky. Others suggest that it was a comet, or an unusual conjunction of stars. Still others say that it was some kind of supernatural light that God provided to guide them. Personally, I tend to think that it was the latter. These men were sufficiently intelligent in astronomy to know when they simply saw a planet, or a star, or a comet. Whatever this remarkable light was, it was apparently unusual enough to have captured their attention in such a way as to make them absolutely certain that the greatest of all Kings had been born into the world. And it also had to be able to guide them, not only to the right city, and to the right village, but even to the right house. This was certainly no ordinary "star", but a supernatural sign from God.
I believe these foreign magicians were students of the Jewish Scriptures. They perhaps had read Numbers 24:17-18, and the prophecy of Balaam concerning the Messiah: "I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; a Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and batter the brow of Moab, and destroy all the sons of tumult. And Edom shall be a possession; Sier also, his enemies, shall be a possession, while Israel does valiantly. Out of Jacob One shall have dominion, and destroy the remains of the city." The "Star" and the "Ruler" are one in the same in this prophecy. These scholars and students of the heavens recognized this remarkable star in the sky as a sign from God that heralded the birth of His promised Ruler. Perhaps these foreigners took the words of Scripture than even the Jewish scholars of that day: that this Ruler would be a mighty conqueror; and that peace with Him should be sought while there was still a chance. They were, after all, considerably "wise"; and the Scriptures say; "Now therefore, be wise, O kings; be instructed, you judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, when His wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all those who put their trust in Him" (Psalm 2:10-12).
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One of the things that's so striking about this story is the contrast between its characters. These magi were very alert to the signs of the coming of this King; but the ones to whom the King came didn't even seem to notice. These foreign scholars were eager to seek Him out and find him; but even when the Jewish scholars looked into the Scriptures to see where He would be born, they didn't bother to go along with the magi to see Him. These uncircumcised Gentiles sought Him so they could worship Him; but the Jewish king only sought Him so He could slay Him.
And though the circumstances aren't the same, I wonder if now - two thousands of years later - we might find some of the same contrasts. I wonder if there aren't people today outside of the church who would have more passion for Christmas - if they only knew its true meaning - than some of the people inside churches tend to have. I wonder if there are brand new Christians in our church this morning who might greet Christmas with a more appropriate sense of wonder and awe, then older, more seasoned Christians who have heard the story many times, and have grown somewhat accustomed to it all. I wonder if some wounded, broken-hearted sinners who genuinely mourn over the sinful lives they've lived wouldn't celebrate Christmas with a greater and more holy enthusiasm, than would people who lived a pretty decent life and thought that they didn't need a Savior as much as other people might.
Let's take a closer look at these "wise men." They have something to teach us about how to greet Christmas with the sort of enthusiasm that we should.
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As we read their story, the first thing we learn from them is ...
1. TO HAVE A HEART THAT SEEKS THE SON OF GOD DILIGENTLY (vv. 1-8).
Matthew writes, "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him" (vv. 1-2).
Can you imagine that scene? The people of Jerusalem must have recognized that this wasn't a bunch of weirdos that came strolling into town. These magi - however many of them there were - were deeply intelligent scholars and students of the heavens and of the times. And when they came, they didn't simply say, "Greetings. We're a group of foreign scholars who are visiting your fair city. We've studied your Scriptures, and examined your prophetic writings; and we've tried to correlate what we've read with some unusual astronomical activity. As a result, we've developed a hypothesis from organized data that strongly suggests that there might be something significant about to happen. And so, we've come to conduct some more detailed research concerning this phenomenon. What we're particularly looking for is a remarkable baby. We hope you'll help us. We're going to set up an office in town; and we'd greatly appreciate it if you would drop by and report anything unusual that you might happen to see." That's not what happened at all. Instead, they came into town and basically said, "We've seen His star and we're here to worship Him. We've traveled a long distance. Now, where is He?" It was almost as if they assumed everyone was looking for Him too!
Look at the details of their announcement - although what's so amazing is that there isn't very much in the way of details. They said, first, that they were looking for Him who had been born the King of the Jews. They didn't bother to defend the idea that He was the King of the Jews, or that it was a big surprise that He had been born. They spoke as if they had been expecting it; and they seemed to assume that everyone else in Jerusalem had been expecting it too.
Second, they said that they saw His star. They didn't explain anything about this remarkable star, nor did they try to defend how they interpreted this star to signify the birth of this King. They simply said, "We saw it; now where is He?" It was as if they assumed that, if they could see in in the East, then they surely could have seen it in Jerusalem.
Third, they stated their motivation. "We have come to worship Him." The word that they used to describe their intention was one that means, to fall down before, or kneel before another as a sign of complete reverence, dependence on or submission to a high authority figure. They say it so matter-of-factly that it almost seems as if they expected that everyone was doing the same thing.
I wonder if it surprised them that, when they began announcing all this, the news troubled those who heard it rather than excited them.
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King Herod was the most troubled of all by the news that some scholars came to town because of the birth of the King of the Jews. After all, Herod was the king; and He was very defensive of his throne.
Herod had a reason to be defensive: he did not rightly belong on the throne in Jerusalem. He was of Edomite descent - a foreigner from Edom; and his father was was installed over the region of Judea by Julius Caesar in 47 B.C. - even though the throne over Judea had only rightly belonged to the lineage of King David from the very beginning. The Jewish people considered Herod an outsider, and a mere puppet of Rome; and so, in time, he grew to be almost neurotic in his paranoia and suspicion of those who might threaten his rule. He was unspeakably cruel in the way that he dealt with even the slightest hint of a threat. He murdered his own wife and then, when his two sons began to suspect that he murdered her, he then murdered them. Herod was such a cruel and fearful man that Caesar Augustus once said, "It would be better to be Herod's hog than to be his son."
When you understand Herod's paranoia, you can appreciate why he became greatly agitated by these scholars coming into his kingdom asking where they could find the new-born King of the Jews. This would be even more understandable if the magi were thinking of the promise in the Scriptures concerning "a Star" that would rise out of Jacob - because that same Scriptures promised that "Edom" (from which Herod came) "shall be a possession; Sier also" (another name for Edom), "his enemies, shall be a possession, while Israel does valiantly. Out of Jacob One shall have dominion, and destroy the remains of the city."
This was a threat to Herod, whether it concerned the birth of a real "King" or not. He wasted no time. He called the chief priests and scribes together - experts in the Scriptures - and asked them where the prophets say the Messiah was to be born. And they told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet [here quoting Micah 5:2]: 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel'" (vv. 5-6).
That was the last straw! Judah didn't think of Herod as much of a shepherd already; the last thing he needed was to have another Shepherd that the people would look to. He secretly called the wise men together and asked them when the star appeared. Together, they determined that the Child would have to be somewhere between one and two years of age. And then, he sent these wise men to Bethlehem as if on a royal mission. He said, "Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also."
Herod, of course, had no intention of worshiping the Child. His only intention was to slay Him. The Bible tells us that, once they found Jesus, God warned these wise men in a dream that they should not return to Herod, but depart for their own country some other way. And the depth of Herod's cruelty and insane rage was shown in the fact that, after he knew he had been deceived, "he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were born in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men" (v. 16).
I believe that, in a sense, there are still many Herods in the world today. Jesus has come; and ever since He came, He has stood in the way of those who want to protect their own little kingdoms from His right to rule. He has been a constant irritation to those who want to go their own way. I believe some modern-day Herods would kill Him today, if they could only lay their hands on Him. I know this because, on Good Friday, many did just that!
But what a contrast that "Herod" mentality is to the genuine, sincere, heartfelt seeking of Christ that's exemplified in the wise men. Think of how far they traveled to find Him. And think of what diligence they exercised in their search. And think of how their only motive was to worship Him. Their search was sincere. And as they went on their way in search for Him, the Bible tells us that God guided them to Him.
God always gives guidance and aid to those who genuinely seek Him on those terms. In the Bible, God has a wonderful word of encouragement to such sincere, humble seekers,
" ... I know the plans that I have for you" declares the LORD, "plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find me when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29:11-13).
That's one of the attitudes God wants us to have this Christmas - a heart that genuinely seeks Him in order to worship Him. God steps in to guide such a seeker right to Jesus; because that's where the search ends - at the feet of Jesus.
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Another thing we see learn from these wise men who sought Jesus is ...
2. TO REJOICE IN OUR HAVING FOUND HIM (vv. 9-10).
The Bible tells us, "When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was" (v. 9).
I try to imagine what went on in the minds of those wise men as they made their way to Bethlehem. They now have a commission from King Herod to find the Child; but how would they find the right child out of so many who would have been born in Bethlehem during that time? And what if the Child's family had moved, and he was no longer in Bethlehem? And then, I try to imagine their joy when, as they looked up into the night sky, they saw the very same "star" that had guided them before! How it guided them we may never fully understand; but the Bible tells us that it went before them until it stood directly over where the young Child was.
And then, the Bible tells us, "When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy." Surely, God was confirming them in their search for the Child, and was granting them success. The way Matthew puts it seems to accentuate their joy. They not only had joy at seeing that their search had been successful; but they had great joy. In fact, they not only had great joy at finding Jesus; but they had exceedingly great joy! The NIV says that they were "overjoyed"! As Eugene Peterson has translated it in "The Message", "... they could hardly contain themselves ..."
Why does someone rejoice when they have found something? They rejoice because that thing that they found was what they needed. It filled a deep longing; and until it was found, the longing remained. The longing is replaced by joy when the thing is found; and the greater the longing, the greater the joy. These wise men had demonstrated a longing to find this Child, born the King of the Jews; and they longed to find Him so they could worship Him. Can there be a higher longing than that? And likewise, can there be a greater joy than having that longing satisfied at last?
Some people think of Christmas only in terms of the tiny Baby that lay in the manger. But so long as that's the only way we think of Him, we'll never really rejoice in the true meaning of Christmas. We must never forget that Christmas happened in order to meet a desperate need in us. Those tiny hands in the cradle eventually became strong and hairy; and nails were driven through their muscles and bones into the wood of the Cross. Those tiny, precious little feet eventually matured into the feet of a man; and they were cruelly twisted sideways, and a nail was pounded through their heal into the wood of the Cross. The tiny body of that baby eventually grew into a man's body; and that man hung and bled in agony on a Cross for our sins - making a payment for our sins that we justly should have paid. And that's why the Baby was born in the first place.
The pressing need of every man and woman here is to be forgiven of sins, and saved from an eternity of separation from the God that made them. Jesus was born to die on the Cross in order to save us from our sins, and rescue us from the destiny our sins had brought upon us. The reason why some people don't greet Christmas with the sort of exceeding joy that they should is because they had forgotten what it was that it was meant to accomplish.
If you have felt the horrible burden of your sins pressing down upon you, then you don't need to be convinced that Christmas is a time for rejoicing. If you feel that burden, and have an exceedingly great longing to be saved from your sins, then you'll greet Christmas with "exceedingly great joy".
These wise men sought the Son of God, and rejoiced at finding Him with exceedingly great joy. May God help needy sinners like us to rejoice in our having found the Son of God also - the One whose death has purchased the pardon from sin that we so desperately need; and may we then rejoice in the celebration of Christmas as in Him who satisfies our deepest longing and meets our deepest need.
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Finally, looking at this story of these wise men who sought Jesus teaches us ...
3. TO GIVE OURSELVES TO HIM IN WORSHIP (vv. 11-12).
Matthew tells us, "And when they had come into the house, they saw the Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense and myrrh" (v. 11).
Again, I ask you to imagine that scene! These regal, noble wise men - perhaps dressed in fine robes and turbans; and perhaps very great in number - fell on their knees before a Baby and worshiped Him. What's more, they gave their riches to Him. This wasn't taking place, you understand, in the animal stall that we're used to thinking of on Christmas. This was taking place in Joseph's and Mary's home. This was a somewhat public event. Many people would have seen it, and would have been notably effected by what they saw. And it would have to have been something that the wise men had prepared themselves to do before they even made the journey to follow the star.
We're not told that these same wise men bowed down to Herod; nor are we told that they gave him a single thing. But there really was no other action more appropriate than to fall down and worship this Child, and to give to Him great riches once they found Him. He was God in human flesh, born to be our Savior from sin, and destined to return in power and great glory as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Again, if we're greeting Christmas with a sense of apathy and dullness, could it be that we have forgotten to worship the Child? If we omit worship from our Christmas activities, what are we really left with? Buying presents? Holiday activities? Sentimental feelings? Christmas junk food? None of these things are wrong; but they're not what Christmas is all about.
Christmas is, above all else, a time to worship the Son of God and give ourselves fully to Him. You can do that, and ignore all the other things, and still be celebrating Christmas as you should.
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Someone has said, "Wise men still seek Him." Perhaps the Christmas story sometimes becomes old and stale to us because we have forgotten to do just that. These wise men have something to teach us about how we're to seek Jesus and greet His birthday with the sort of enthusiasm it deserves. Let's learn from their example.
If we do this, then Christmas will never be old to us - but forever fresh and exciting.
Bethany Bible Church, 18245 NW Germantown Road, Portland, OR 97231 / 503.645.1436