Today marks the fourth Sunday of Advent, a time of Christian preparation to celebrate the birth of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.
As we have spoken about in the last three weeks, one way we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth is to adorn and decorate the sanctuary of the church and our homes with many symbols of Christ’s birth. We have spoken in prior weeks about the Advent Wreath and its candles, about the nativity scenes of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and last week about the Christmas tree. This week, I would like to highlight that we also prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth by gift giving.
Gift-giving at Jesus’ birth happened for Jesus with the wise men. We will talk about that event a little later. But sharing gifts with one another to mark Jesus’ birth did not become a custom in celebrating Jesus’ birth for a few hundred years. When early Christians did share gifts, they did so on New Year’s Day. Then, in 386 AD, Christ’s birth was decreed to be celebrated on December 25. At that time, some folks kept to gift-giving shifted on New Year’s Day while others began giving earlier in December. The idea behind the gift-giving was to reflect the gifting done by the magi to Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew even if the gifts were not shared on December 25th, the day chosen as Jesus’ birthday.
Now, not long after the shift to December 25th, Christian rulers, kings and princes as such, came to an important conclusion about gift giving. These rules concluded that the wise men had given gifts to Jesus, a king. Therefore, it was only right that gift-giving at Christmas should be from the people to their kings. So, the tradition became that at Christmas, that kings received gifts from the people. Apparently, this gift giving to kings and other rulers went on until about the 10th century. At that time, a story of Good King, Wenceslas, began circulating how he had trudged through the snow at Christmas time to give gifts to the poor. Not long after Good King Wenceslas’ story became widely known, tradition shifted and gift giving among and between the people became the norm and the date for sharing gifts moved from early December or January 1 to December 24.
Now that is probably more than you wanted to know about gift-giving at Christmas but again coming to know what we do not know is how we grow in life. To continually grow in knowledge, holiness, and compassion and develop a broad sense of righteousness, being right with God, is the hallmark of the Christian faith journey. We grow in righteousness when we become willing to explore what we may not know about the mysteries of faith.
So today, we come to the mystery of faith found in the story of the wise men coming to see this baby Jesus. What did the wise men know about Jesus? What can we discover from the wise men’s experience that will help us in our faith journey?
The only account of the wise men’s journey and encounter with Jesus is found in the Gospel of Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew is believed by Biblical scholars to be written for a Jewish audience. Matthew wrote, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.” We want to pause for just a moment and realize to the Jewish audience to say, “Magi from the east,” would have strongly suggested the Magi, wise and learned men, came from what the lands the ancients would have identified as Babylon, some 1,700 hundred miles from Jerusalem. The Babylonians had conquered and destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple in 586 BC. Most of the surviving elite of the Jewish nation were then taken into captivity and exiled to Babylon itself. The Jews would not be allowed to begin returning to Jerusalem for several decades. Given this history, to have Babylonians arrive in Jerusalem could be cause for alarm among the Jews.
We see the arrival of the Babylonians did cause quite a stir. Matthew wrote, the Magi “2 Asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’
3 When King Herod (the king of the Jews at the time the Magi arrived) heard this [news of a newborn king of the Jews] he [Herod] was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:2-3). We wonder, “Wise men what motivated you to endure the hardship and dangers of traveling 1,700 miles from the lands of Babylon to worship a child born king of the Jews? What had you learned from the Jews while you held them captive that would then cause you nearly 600 years later to desire to worship one born king of the Jews? Why, indeed, had you come all that way?”
It is possible the Babylonians had learned this from the Jews from Psalm 89: “1 I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. 2 I will declare that your love stands firm forever, that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself. 3 You (God) , ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, 4 ‘I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.’”
At the time of the Magi’s visit to Jerusalem, kings of Israel were not born into kingship, the kings of Israel were appointed to the throne by the Roman Senate. To say someone was born king of Jews would mean to the Romans that they were not involved in the king selection process and it would mean to the Jews that the person of the bloodline of David had been born and the enduring kingdom God had promised was about to commence. The psalmist said of God, “You have established your faithfulness in heaven itself” (Psalm 89:2b) and in Numbers “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17a). For the learned men from Babylon to see a new star, a new light in the heavens over their western skies, would mean to them God was real and had acted as the Hebrew Scriptures said God would do.
Matthew in providing this account to his Jewish audience was relating information important for them to know that God had kept his promise and even the learned people of Babylon knew it.
The news from the Babylonians to the people of Jerusalem should have been cause for great joy but it was not. The news of someone born king of the Jews and of a star signifying God had acted was Matthew said news that “disturbed,” the king and his subjects. Why did Jesus’ birth disturb so many people then? It disturbed Herod because Herod was already king and wanted to remain king. So, Herod was disturbed at the thought someone greater than he was in the world. Herod had a reputation for killing those who he imagined were trying to take his throne. So, we understand Herod. But why does Jesus’ birth disturb so many people today? Why have people become accustomed to hearing someone use Jesus’ name as cuss word but then get disturbed with someone who says Jesus is Lord of their life? Like Herod, people today are disturbed because they like being king or queen of their lives and want to remain that way. People are disturbed by the thought someone greater than they is in the world. And so, people reject rivals for the throne of their life. The inherent character of people has not changed in the last 2,000 years.
Herod was disturbed and he would not rest until this rival was killed. But Herod wanted no one to know of his plans. So, Herod dealt secretly with the people who could unwittingly help him in his plans. Luke said in verse 4, “4 When he [Herod] had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he [Herod] asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied” (Luke 2:4-6a). “7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared” (Luke 2:7). Herod, working in secret, was the only one who knew when his rival could have been born and where his rival could be found. So, Herod, “8 Sent them [the Magi] to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Luke 2:8). Herod must have so proud of himself. Herod had constructed the perfect trap, wise men indeed, Herod must have thought. “I have outwitted them and now I, Herod, will kill the precious person born king of the Jews. I am greater than God.” But Luke later cues us in that the Magi became aware of the deceitfulness of Herod. Luke wrote in verse 12 that the Magi had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod and share information about the child with Herod. The Magi who had seen the star placed in the sky by the God of Israel had received God’s wisdom that Herod’s desire to worship the child was not to be trusted. This would have shocked Matthew’s largely Jewish audience that God would speak to the Gentiles, non-Jews.
Luke said, “9 After they [the Magi] had heard the king [Herod], they [the Magi] went on their way, and the star they [the Magi] had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they [the Magi] saw the star, they [the Magi] were overjoyed” (Luke 2:9-10). The Magi took the information from Herod and headed south from Jerusalem toward Bethlehem. Sometime after this journey began, the star that had first attracted the Magi’s attention appeared again in the sky. Seeing the star again, this light in the heavens, was cause for the Magi to be overjoyed.
Why did the star appear and why was the appearance of the star cause for joy? Herod told the Magi where to find the baby. Wasn’t that enough? I believe the Magi were overjoyed by the appearance of the star because that meant they no longer were dependent upon Herod in any way to complete their mission. Instead, the Magi were joyful because they were once again fully dependent upon the God of Israel who had sent this light into the darkness. The Magi understood Herod was disturbed and his behavior was cunning and manipulative. To be freed of the cleverness of Herod and dependent upon the wisdom of God alone was cause for joy.
The Apostle Paul expressed would later express this type of joy two ways, “6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. 8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:6-8). Having our lives rooted in Christ means we are no longer subject to the whatever fad or new idea comes along. We always know who we are. Paul also said that when we place our dependence on God, then “14 We will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14).
We are all dependent upon something. Some people feel dependent upon their job, others by their wealth, or some by how their friends see them. But when we are dependent solely upon God then we are free from everything else, including the deceptions and cunning schemes of others. The Magi had information from Herod, the king of deception and cunning schemes, and they had information from God in the form of a star of pure light and dream warning them of Herod’s intentions. With the appearance of the star, the Magi had to choose. Listen to Herod or listen to God. The Magi were be joyfully to be able to choose God.
Throughout Hebrew Scriptures God said to the Jews:
- Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).
- Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock (Isaiah 26:4).
- Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known (Jeremiah 33:3).
- Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness (Psalm 37:3).
What Luke provided here was that the Magi, pagans, came to place their trust in God. That these non-Jews would have trust God must have astonished Matthew’s Jewish readers. Here were the Magi, probably Babylonians, once bitter enemies of Israel, pagans, had been captivated by the light placed in the sky by God and spoken to by God in their dreams. These pagans were following God’s leading and excited to find the child born king of the Jews and worship him. What an incredibly exciting moment in the history of Judaism to see non-Jews being called by God to worship him. Meanwhile, the Jewish political leader, Herod, was plotting to kill the child, and the Jewish religious leaders seemed uninterested in the news that the heir to David’s throne had been born. What an incredibly disappointing moment in the history of Judaism when some chose indifference and deceit in worshiping God.
This moment of two distinct behaviors occurring at the same time shows us yet again that God was calling people, one at a time, to come into his presence. He is still calling people into faith one at a time. I think God is excited for each person who comes to faith regardless of their standing or station in life and he is disappointed for each person who is indifferent to his call or who seeks to destroy his work among the people.
The Magi, who accepted God’s call, saw the star stop over a specific house in Bethlehem. Luke said, “11 On coming to the house, they [the Magi] saw the child [Jesus] with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him [Jesus]” (Luke 2:11a). The desire of the Magi’s heart had been satisfied. They worshiped Jesus.
Worship, as the Magi experience and as we have been experiencing this hour, is a powerful transforming experience. Worship in dependence to God, elevates our thinking and opens our minds to hear God, to see our own dignity in him, and the worth of others. Worship takes individuals of vastly different background and experiences and builds a single body of unity. There in that house were the Magi, Babylonians, worshipping Jesus, with his mother Mary, a Jewish woman. Jew and Gentile were brought together by the person of Jesus Christ. Here in this house, a unique group of people have come together by the person of Jesus Christ. This is the way life should be.
For one and all present in that house with Mary and the child, giving worship to Jesus was the true gift of the moment. Oh yes, the Magi gave tangible gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, all highly valuable materials of the time. But I think these gifts were more a reflection that having found Jesus and worshipped him, the Magi’s were transformed by that worship and did not want to hold anything back from God.
I am joyful that we explored the account of the Magi told because it reminds me how glad I am that each person here answered the call to come and worship God. I am glad that each person here came to express a dependence upon God, upon his love and wisdom, and upon his Son, Jesus. I am glad people from so many different backgrounds are here transformed by worship into a single body expressing as one our love for God, seeing our individual dignity in God, and coming to see the worth of each person here. These are gifts of incredible value that we have all received today. Yes, the Magi gave gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that were used and expended. But the gifts of worshipping together, choosing dependence upon God, and unity of body are the enduring gifts of the Magi. I am glad you and I are here today to enjoy those gifts together. Amen and Amen.