A Picture Perfect Christmas: The Magi

A Picture Perfect Christmas: The Magi

Sermon Podcast Audio 

The Picture

Last week we began our Christmas series and we are calling it “A Picture Perfect Christmas.” We are looking at the original Christmas scene—the nativity and those people or images that we normally associate with that one night in Bethlehem so long ago.

When we think of a picture perfect Christmas, we think of things like a Norman Rockwell painting, or we might even envision perfect family photos. We imagine a beautiful nativity scene, the light shining down from heaven, Mary sitting there so peacefully and calmly, well-behaved animals around, and the first visitors arrived and everything was just perfect.

Unfortunately, when we look at reality, we find that picture perfect Christmas might actually be closer to anything but. I remember when I first married Kerri, her mom always had the Norman Rockwell images in her mind when it came to the holidays, and she would be so emotional if everything wasn’t just perfect and every event didn’t go as planned. I am glad to say she has abandoned these ideas!

To be honest, this series would probably have been better called a not-so-picture-perfect Christmas. After all, what was so picture perfect about this night? Let’s think about this for a second. Ladies, put yourself in Mary’s sandals—nine months pregnant, with a potentially perilous trip of about 90 miles ahead of you, where you would either walk or ride on the back of some animal. When you arrive, there are no normal lodging conditions available, so what you are left with is a stable. Most likely this stable was a cave used for housing animals and everything the animals leave behind. Take a big whiff of that. Are any of you ladies signing up for that? Are any of you guys ready to take your wife on that journey? I didn’t think so!

And after spending time in labor in this nasty, disgusting place, you are soon met by some strangers, shepherds from around the area—these lowly, grungy guys that spent more time with sheep than with people. And they want to see your brand new baby. Sure, why not? What woman doesn’t want strangers around her after she’s given birth?

This picture we normally think of for Christmas might not be entirely accurate. To be honest, there was very little that was picture perfect about it.

Today I want us to look at Matthew’s account of that first Christmas and look at another part of the image we usually see around the nativity: the Magi.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.  When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘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.'”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.  He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 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 2:1-12

Touching Up the Picture

Before we get too far into the story, I would like correct a few misunderstandings about the Christmas story, especially in regard to this part of the story. I am not looking to destroy your idea of Christmas, but I think we need a little repair on our Christmas theology.

First, Jesus was most likely approaching the age of two when the Magi visited him. He was a toddler by the time the Magi arrived. If he was in that manger, his legs would be hanging over the sides of the crib. More likely, he was up walking and running around, just like toddlers do. But I am sure Mary didn’t have to contend with the terrible twos! And I am sure this was very difficult on the kids that followed. Wouldn’t you love to hear growing up, “Why can’t you be more like Jesus?”

Also, the family was no longer in the stable, but had found more permanent housing for their stay in Bethlehem. The wise men arrived at the house they were staying at. No more smelly cave for them.

Next, these guys were Magi, not kings like we sometimes sing about. Magi means magician. They were students of the stars, experts in the interpretation of dreams and various other secret arts. Astrology had been developed into a sophisticated science in this time and these guys were pros. They were leading figures in the religious court life of their home country.

Lastly, even though we are told they gave three gifts, there is no reason to believe that there were only three of them. In fact, they possibly traveled 900 miles to get there. It would have been a journey that took months. They most likely had a large travel party with them.

One question you may have is: What about the star? What was it? Was it natural or supernatural? To be honest, the thoughts on this are all over the board, from imagining it was the conjunction of the planets of Jupiter and Saturn, to believing it was a supernova or an exploding star. Some want to say it was Haley’s comet, but the timing doesn’t add up for this theory. And some simply just say it was supernatural, quite possibly an angel. The correct answer is: We don’t know. The evidence is inconclusive. Personally, I lean toward the supernatural idea because from what we read it would seem that the star appeared, it went away while they were in Jerusalem, and it reappeared to lead them to the place where Jesus and his family were staying.

Okay, now that the Christmas theology has been corrected or at least informed, what can we see from this part of the Christmas picture?

Worry or Worship

There are several themes in this passage we could talk about. The theme that God is always in control. The theme of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in the birth of Jesus and the location. But as I read through the story, what I was struck by was the contrasting responses to the birth of Jesus.

We see the wise men, willing to travel hundreds of miles to see for themselves the arrival of what they believed to be a new king. And they traveled all that way so they could bring gifts and pay homage to him.

Then we see Herod. Upon hearing this news he was disturbed. This wasn’t good news for him. In fact, it was so troubling for him that it had an impact on the entire city. All Jerusalem was disturbed with him. So, in response to the birth of Jesus the Magi worshipped while Herod worried.

What was there for Herod to worry about? And why were the wise men so sure that a star was announcing the birth of an important person?

It was understood in this time period, 1st century BC/AD that a great ruler would come out of Judea. Many historians of the time wrote about it. Suetonius, a Roman historian of the time, wrote, “Throughout the whole of the East there had spread an old and persistent belief: destiny had decreed that at that time men coming forth from Judea would seize power [and rule the world].”Not only were historians of the time writing about this event, but the Old Testament and the prophecies therein—which Herod and his advisors and the Magi would have known—spoke of an event. In Numbers, we see a prophecy by a man named Balaam:

“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

Herod’s advisors even quote Micah 5:2,4.

“‘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

Herod was worried because he was an unscrupulous tyrant. And he claimed the title “King of the Jews” for himself. But he knew he had no rightful claim to the throne of David. He wasn’t David’s heir and he was worried someone might try to overthrow him. Then came the men from afar telling him that the King of the Jews had been born. And the words they used didn’t mean that he was born to be king, but that he was born already king. They were talking about who he already was, not who he would be.

But the wise men, Gentiles from a far off land, were not worried. In fact, they sought him out so they could pay homage to him, so they could worship him. And when they found him, they bowed down to him as a sign of respect to this child’s position as king. Their worship also resulted in gifts. The gifts they brought were valuable. The sort of things that Apple in the ancient world would think were appropriate presents for a king.

We can try to read into the gifts they brought, looking for symbolic meanings, but Matthew really doesn’t indicate a symbolic connection. They were expensive gifts that would be helpful to the new young family, especially as they would have to flee the country soon. So, we see two very different responses to the birth of Christ: one person worried, while another worshiped.

But there is another contrast here, as well.

Jealousy or Joy

In Herod, we don’t just see worry. We see jealousy. He was not content to share the spotlight with anyone. And here were these guys that were looking for one whom Herod considered to be a rival. In his jealousy, he began to scheme. He tried to deceive the Magi, telling them, “Yeah, let me know when you find him. I want to worship him too.”

Fortunately, the Magi were given a vision to avoid Herod on their way home. They paid attention to it and didn’t return to the king, which was a very risky move for them.

Undeterred, Herod decided to wipe out the competition and in Matthew 2:16, we find that Herod decreed for all baby boys two and under to be killed. Even this horrid and very drastic step did not appease his jealousy. In his last years, suffering and illness compounded his paranoia and he turned to cruelty. In fits of rage and jealousy, he killed close associates, his wife, and at least two of his sons. He wanted what he didn’t have and jealousy consumed him.

We see that contrasted with the reaction of the Magi. These men were willing to travel hundreds and hundreds of miles for more than a month, all to seek out who they believed was the new King. And what was their reaction? Look at verse 10 again,

“When they saw the star, they were overjoyed…”  —Matthew 2:10

Deliriously happy may be an overstatement, but it is close to how they felt.

And even after traveling hundreds of miles, when they reached Jerusalem and Herod, they still had six miles to go. They went with excitement and joy, not willing to stop until they reached Jesus. They wanted to see the king. And nothing, not a long journey, not a mad ruler, not another six miles would prevent them. And they had exceedingly great joy in the process.

How Far Are You Willing to Go For Jesus?

So, here we have another not-so-picture-perfect scene that we associate with Christmas, even though it happened a couple of years later. I end by asking: How do you respond to Jesus? These wise men saw from afar the fingerprints of God around them and they didn’t run away, they dug deeper. They sought out where these signs were pointing them. Mile after mile they followed the star, unwilling to stop until they got there.  And they did it with joy.

How often do we find any joy, much less great joy, when we follow Jesus? How many woke up this morning and had great joy at the opportunity to come here to worship Jesus?

Casual commitments to Jesus are easy and unfortunately seem to be the norm in our culture. But when we truly understand who it is we are after, when we understand who the star is leading us to, we will want to follow, we will be willing to sacrifice and give, we will be willing to drop everything so that we can worship.

Can you imagine what would have happened if the wise men had stopped in Jerusalem? What would they have missed? I think sometimes many of us only want to get that close. We are afraid of what following Jesus will cost and so we become satisfied with staying 6 miles away. But, oh, what we miss when we don’t continue the journey and follow him all the way.

You see, God did the work already. God has come to us in the form of a child. Will we let our fear, our worry, our jealousy keep us from experiencing all he has come to bring? Will we let that keep us from experiencing life?

What’s interesting is that the religious leaders who consulted with Herod knew exactly, right away, the significance of the star. They knew it pointed to the Messiah, God’s promised salvation to the Jewish people. And yet, even knowing this, and even looking for it, they still missed it.

What is keeping you from Jesus? Are you willing to lay it down so that with joy, you can come and worship him? Some of you need to stop putting up barriers as to why you cannot follow him. He has shown you the star, he has called you to follow. It is time to say yes. 

Others of us need to remember that Jesus broke down the barriers. The first recorded contact we have with Jesus and others is with lowly shepherds and Gentile Magi. Jesus was born as King of the Jews, but there is a universal call in his birth. Take time to listen to those around you and engage them. This season is all about Christ. And people are very receptive to spiritual conversations. Don’t avoid them. Lean into them and see what God can do through you. Invite someone to join you Christmas Eve.

Scholar NT Wright says, “Listen to the whole story, Matthew is saying. Think about what it meant for Jesus to be the true king of the Jews. And then—come to him, by whatever route you can, and with the best gifts you can find.”

So, what will it be for you? Worry or worship? Jealousy or joy? Will we find joy in following Jesus? Will we be willing to give all to him in worship? This Christmas don’t let the busyness of the season crowd Christ out of Christmas. Make time to find the joy that comes when we see Christ and spend time worshipping him.

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