HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
January 1, 2017
Matthew 2: 1-12 (CEB)
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
3When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. 4He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
6You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.”
7Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. 8He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” 9When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
There are two kinds of people in this world, right? The “haves” and the “have-nots.” Or wait; is it the jocks and the nerds? Of course, there are the men and the women, and Republicans and Democrats. And we have the religious and the non-religious. I guess when it comes down to it; there are a lot more than two kinds of people, right? And the same would have been true about two thousand years ago, but when it came to the Hebrew Scriptures, there really were two kinds of people; those who studied them, and those who did something about them. So it is that we come this morning to the final characters of our Nativity scenes, the wise men.
Modern tradition holds that the wise men arrived in Bethlehem twelve days after Jesus’ birth, but in actuality, it was probably more like two years! In fact, tradition has led us to assume many things about these men that the Bible does not tell us. For one, we often refer to them as “kings,” which is probably not accurate. To call them wise is probably fair, as the mostly likely possibility is that these men were astrologers. We have always referred to them as the “three wise men,” but we do not actually know their number; all we know for sure is that they brought three gifts on their long journey from the East.
These men had seen a very unusual star, or perhaps an unusual alignment of several stars. They clearly were quite learned in the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, enough to know that this pointed to a divine birth among the Jewish people. So, like captains charting a course by the stars in the middle of the vast ocean, these men set off to “follow” the star. And that’s the first thing I want to point out about the magi. They were nowhere near Jerusalem. They knew nothing for certain, only that this star seemed to indicate a royal birth among the Jews. Yet, they acted on what they did know from the Hebrew Scriptures and what they saw before them in the heavens, and they set off toward Jewish territory. Their journey brought them to the hillside country of Judea. And assuming that the star indicated a birth in the house of the ruler, they went first to the king, to Herod’s home. “Where is the King of the Jews?” they asked Herod. And with that question, they met those other sorts of people I mentioned earlier: the scribes who were charged with knowing and teaching the Hebrew Scriptures.
You see, Herod knew nothing of which the wise men spoke, but the fact that they inquired about the birth of a new king among the Jews was deeply troublesome to Herod. So it is that Herod calls in the scholars to gather further information. “Where is the Messiah to be born?” Herod asks. Well, to the chief priests and the legal experts, this was child’s play. “In Bethlehem of Judea, of course!” they tell Herod. They had all the information in front of them, the prophecies of their well-studied Scriptures, and the stars in the skies above them, but it hadn’t yet occurred to these Jewish scholars that their very own Messiah was among them. It was the Gentile astrologers from a far off land who embraced the mystery of what was before them and followed in faith.
Could you imagine, being right there in Jerusalem, just five miles from Bethlehem? You know the scriptures and prophecies backwards and forwards and yet, when the Messiah is born, you miss it?!? There is a valuable lesson here, one which those legal experts and chief priests learned on the day the wise men appeared in Herod’s court; sometimes, knowledge alone isn’t enough. Now, don’t get me wrong. Those magi had to know the Hebrew writings enough to piece together the meaning of the sign they saw in the sky, and they needed the help of the legal experts to gain that final piece of information that would lead them to Joseph and Mary’s doorstep. But, ultimately, it was faith that led them to set out on a journey that could lead them to who knows where. And we must have knowledge and faith, too. We must know what it is that God calls us to be looking for. We must recognize the signs of God’s work in the world. And then, when we see the signs, when we feel the nudge of God pushing into new territory, when we hear Christ calling, we must go, even if we are uncertain of all that is to come; we must have faith to embrace God’s direction for our lives. And here’s the thing. If we can follow the example of the wise men in their pursuit of the divine child, we too will encounter the Messiah in new and amazing ways.
Just look at what happened when the wise men reached their final destination in Bethlehem. These are men from a distant land; many, many months’ journey away. They may have heard of the race called Jew, but their knowledge would’ve been somewhat limited. They would’ve known little to nothing about God’s covenants with the Jewish people, and the words of the prophets laying out God’s plan for these people. But when they saw Jesus, they suddenly knew that this was a special king. And though he was called “King of the Jews,” the magi from the East knew that Jesus was their king, too. As soon as they saw him, they bowed down in genuine praise adoration; they worshipped the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And it is the reaction of these great astrologers, who have journeyed so far, that gives us the first idea of just how big Jesus’ kingdom will be; where “every knee will bow and every tongue confess…”
As we watch this scene unfold, I think it raises an important point about the role of Christ in our lives. We have just celebrated again the birth of our Christ. But Christmas is more than a birthday party for Jesus once a year. Jesus’ birth means nothing if it is not celebrated throughout the year. Jesus’ birth means nothing if it does not change our lives. And I’m not talking about lives changed for just a few days or weeks. I’m talking lives changed for years to come. The wise men followed that star for several months, if not years. They did not stray from their path; they did not abandon their journey. They pressed on until they found what they were looking for. And when they did, they fell to their knees praising this tiny king. They knew their lives would never be the same, and so they did the only thing they could think to do, offering their praise and worship to this Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
But what’s amazingly remarkable about the worship of the wise men is how it contrasted so greatly with Herod. Remember, Herod left the wise men with instructions, “When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” Herod wanted to imply that it was his intention to go and worship the Messiah as well, which would have been the appropriate act of any Jew. But as we all know, worship and honor of the newborn king was not Herod’s intent at all. At the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod was the “King of the Jews,” and he wanted to do away with this new rival to his throne (as he did away with any rival to his throne, including his own son). Sometimes, we can approach worship with the wrong intentions, we can come with a bad attitude, and we can actually “worship” in harmful ways. We might not have the same sort of awful intentions as Herod, but when we approach the throne of Christ with anything less than genuine sincerity and gratitude in our hearts, then our praise of the King will fall short.
Is your worship worthy of this king who has been born in our midst? Sadly, on a day like this, I’m sort of preaching to the choir. These Sundays in the midst of holiday breaks are often the lowest attended of the year. What a way to honor Christ’s birth, huh? What a way to honor and worship this king who has given his life for us? When the magi found Jesus, they didn’t say, “Great, there he is! We’ll come back after we’ve grabbed a bite to eat and watched the game. We’ll just drop in when it’s more convenient.” No. They fell to their knees right then and there to worship their king. And we should do no less. After all the gifts are opened and our bellies are full, the least, the LEAST, we can do is bow down to worship our Savior and say “Thank you” to God for the countless ways he has blessed our lives. And if we cannot muster even that, then we are no better than Herod.
Jesus is here, so now what? For us, this is really just the beginning of the journey, and there is much for us to learn from the journey the wise men took before us thousands of years ago. For starters, we need to take time to read, to study, and to know the scriptures; the promises of God, the teachings of Christ, and the ways the Holy Spirit works in our world today. Then, we need to foster our faith in such a way that when God calls us in a new direction, we are prepared to embrace even the mystery of what is ahead and to go where Christ leads. And ultimately, when that journey takes us to a new encounter with Christ, we can do nothing less than to bow in our Savior’s midst in humble adoration, complete devotion, and genuine worship and praise.
The life of those magi was changed by that humble baby, and our lives will change too, if we will follow in faith and worship our Savior. In fact, that is what this meal we share today is all about. In some mysterious way, our worshipful sharing of the Lord’s Supper makes Christ’s presence known to us in new and powerful ways. It is my prayer that as we come to the Table today to share in this meal, we will come like the wise men…