This talk was given at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church during their 2012 “Voices of the Nativity” Advent Forum.
A quick summary of the talk:
Main point: The wise men were wise because they passionately sought after Jesus.
Primary application: Be wise like the wise men – passionately seek after Jesus this Christmas.
Welcome. Thanks for having me today. I’m glad to be here and thankful for the opportunity. I really appreciated Karla inviting me to be here. I’m also really glad that my daughter, wife, mom, step-dad, and grandmother are here, because that means I have a really great cheering section in case this talk doesn’t go very well.
I want to get two things out of the way: first, there are going to be a lot of plot spoilers today about the Christmas story. Earlier this year I was with a friend at his kid’s flag football game. He was taping the big college football game at home so he could watch it that afternoon, but they kept announcing the scores over the loudspeakers, and he got pretty angry.
My point is, I’ll kind of be doing the equivalent of ‘announcing the score’ a lot in this talk, and so if you want to read the Christmas story for yourself, this might not be the right class for you.
Second, my goal today is for you to be really excited about Jesus after my talk. I mean, I want you to dedicate a lot of time and energy to building a relationship with him. Seriously. A LOT of time and energy.
That might not be for everyone here, and I will not take it personally if you want to get up in front all of your friends, and family, and everyone who knows you here at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, and find a different Sunday School class. I know we’re at church and you’re probably expecting that “seriously following Jesus” would be the goal of a Sunday School class, but I just wanted to be upfront and honest with everyone.
The other goal, actually, is that you would go to Amazon.com this afternoon, or, if you have a smart phone, I think you can pull up the website right now, and just buy a copy of True Reason, which is the book I published this year. It has sold over 2,500 copies and is the third best selling book for our publisher this year, with a four star review at Amazon.com. In other words, if you pull out your phone and start looking at Facebook, I will probably think you are buying a copy of my book.
Well, with those introductory remarks out of the way, let’s get into the substance of the talk itself. We are going to talk about the wise men today, a story found in Matthew 2:1-12.
But before we do that, I want to be transparent with all of you, as if you were all really close friends of mine, and start with my struggles about Christmas. This will tie back into Matthew 2 and the wise men in a bit.
I know that we’re supposed to be excited and joyful and happy about Christmas, but the truth is that I’m not always particularly hyped up about it.
Isn’t that terrible? I’m the Sunday School teacher today, and I am not particularly excited about Christmas. I’m actually more excited about the day after Christmas. There’s lots of leftovers to eat, you get to play with your new toys, and it will be a lot more restful and laid back.
In my defense, I think I have a good case for not being excited about Christmas.
My first reason is all the bad Christmas sweaters. Have you guys seen some of the sweaters that people wear this time of year? Some people even have Bad Christmas Sweater parties where everyone deliberately wears an ugly sweater.
That is wrong. That is really, really wrong.
There are a lot of other reasons to be disenchanted with Christmas.
And I want to talk about those reasons with you.
First, I get depressed by all the marketing and selling of stuff. It seems like every emotional lever I have has been exhausted by the constant advertising. Buy this. Buy that. You need this. You need that. Get it now! On sale for a limited time! Buy 2, get one free! Even at church, people will try and sell you things.
The really tragic thing about the consumerism of Christmas is this: the emotional tone of Advent, the season before Christmas, is supposed to be anticipation and joy about God. And what we’ve done is that we’ve taken these emotions and made them about getting stuff on Christmas Day.
What are you waiting for? Opening my presents.
What are you hoping for? To get this cool thing.
I’m tired of people trying to sell me something. It is frustrating to try and anticipate Jesus coming and then have someone try to knock me off track and make me want to wait for a BRAND NEW COMPUTER! Its not that a new computer wouldn’t be the perfect gift for some people, but I’m trying to foster a desire for God.
And its hard to focus on God when everyone is shouting about stuff.
I think another pressure of Christmas is religious pressure. There is a lot of pressure from Christians and the church to be joyful. To be happy. To be excited that Jesus has come and to be excited that Jesus is coming back.
But the thing is, I did that last year. And the year that before that.
And it starts to feel fake.
I mean, just as a matter of pure, disinterested, historical accuracy, Jesus probably came in the spring, when sheep typically give birth. Sheep give birth in the spring so that their young lambs will enter the world in milder weather, with lots of fresh, new grass available to eat.
This is the same reason that my wife and I had our baby daughter born in March. Its warmer then.
I’m kidding about that. But the point is that shepherds watch over their flock at night in the spring time, because that is the time of year when they can assist with the deliveries of new lambs.
I can tell you from a similar experience that new lambs are not always born after lunch. Sometimes new lambs decide to come in the middle of the night.
My big point here is just that there a lot of reasons why maybe we aren’t excited about the birth of Jesus. There are a lot of distractions and a lot of pressures.
I don’t know what pressures you have on your life right now. I have been doing campus ministry for about ten years now, and every year I have a lot of counseling with students about how to get along with their families during the month they’ll be home between the fall and the spring semesters.
I don’t know, but maybe the Marriage and Family Pastors do a lot of counseling for parents as they prepare for their kids to come home.
The point is that I hear about the inner workings of a lot of families and the truth is that most of us seem to be pretty dysfunctional.
At Christmas there are all kinds of family tension. There are financial worries. There are health challenges. Spouses get short with each other. There was just the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut. There is horrible, extreme poverty around the world, and kids are dying of malnutrition and Americans are dying of obesity. Republicans and Democrats can’t get along in Washington.
But maybe this doesn’t describe you at all. Maybe you’re having the best Christmas of your life. This has been a great Advent season, full of passion for God and a deep joy in Christ. And your #1 complaint would be all thee pessimistic party poopers who talk about why they hate Christmas.
We needed to get into this together, though, because now we are ready to look at Matthew 2, verses 1-12, and talk at a deeper level about the wise men.
Let’s read through Matthew 2:1-12 together:
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, 2saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
6“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9After listening to the king, they went on their way.
And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
Herod, The Chief Priests, and the Wise Men
We have to look briefly at Herod and the chief priests before we get to the wise men.
What all three of these groups of people reveal is very different attitudes towards the birth of Jesus.
According to one commentary, King Herod, “in his last years, suffering an illness that compounded his paranoia, he turned to cruelty and in fits of rage and jealousy killed close associates, his wife Mariamne…, and at least two of his sons.”
In other words, King Herod really, really did not want anyone else to be King of the Jews.
So when the wise men said they had heard about a new king of the Jews, Herod saw this little baby as a great threat to his power. Herod attempts to manipulate the wise men, and tells them lies, to make it easier for him to murder a little baby.
And when the wise men don’t return to Jerusalem, Herod gets really angry, and he has all the baby boys in Bethlehem, two years and younger, killed, just to make sure he killed whichever one was supposed to replace him as king.
I told you already that I don’t like Christmas very much, but I’m telling you, Herod really didn’t want there to ever be a Christmas.
You can think of Herod like the Ultimate Grinch, except he never had a change of heart. He ended his life full of insecurity, paranoia, murder, and anger.
As a matter of historical accuracy, then, we have good evidence to suggest that the wise men did not arrive in Jerusalem until well after Jesus was born. Why? Because Herod went up to two years old, suggesting he had reason to believe that the newborn King of the Jews was not just a few days old. Also, Matthew tells us that the wise men came to Jesus in a house, not a stable.
Let that sink in. A year or so after the first Christmas, Herod responded to the news of Jesus’ birth by murdering about twenty baby boys.
Herod’s response to Jesus is a good reminder to us that there is real evil in the world.
The chief priests and the scribes
In this story, the scribes and the chief priests show us what it looks like to be apathetic and selfish about the arrival of Jesus. It is a little anachronistic, but in some ways, they are a lot like mainstream Americans. Let me explain.
Remember, one of the main hopes of the Jewish people at this time was for the Messiah to come. Why? Well, do you hate high tax rates? What if the tax rate was as high as the government could make it without actually killing you? Would you want a new government?
Yes, you would. And the Jewish hope was that a Messiah would come, who would be uniquely qualified to lead his people to freedom from oppression, renew the people’s devotion to God, and make Israel a great nation again.
What could be more amazing then wise men coming, from hundreds of miles away, to ask where this Messiah is, because they want to worship your king?
But all the scribes and chief priests do is say, “oh, we have this prophecy about our king. He is supposed to be born in Bethlehem.”
This is a prophecy from Micah, which was written around 700B.C. Imagine waiting to get your Christmas present for 700 years. Wouldn’t you be excited when it finally came? Or maybe, like these people, you would have given up and stopped expecting anyone to come.
Now, Bethlehem is only five miles away from Jerusalem. That is not very far.
But apparently none of these people went along with the wise men! Doesn’t that seem incredibly negligent?
But why? Why didn’t they go?
I think the main reason is because they were afraid of King Herod killing them and their families. Because anyone who showed too much interest in another king was liable to be executed for treason.
I don’t know if we have that problem in America. But sometimes we do shun people who are really excited about Jesus.
The woman who wants to run the business by the books, treating every customer well, and aspiring to the highest ethical standards? That can be pretty expensive. It doesn’t always boost the bottom line.
The guy who stands up for the moral teaching of the Bible? It can seem pretty intolerant and bigoted.
The spiritual leader who calls for radical generosity to relieve the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable? What a guilt trip. How unpleasant.
Ask yourself: Are you surrounded by people who are excited about Jesus? Or would your family members and best friends distance themselves from you if you expressed a deep and comprehensive love for Jesus?
The Wise Men
First, we have to dispel some myths and legends about these wise men.
For instance, there is no record there were just three wise men. And there is really absolutely no evidence that their names were Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar.
Furthermore, there may not have been three gifts. Maybe there were many different gifts of gold, of frankincense, and of myrrh. Think about it. These are luxurious gifts. Let’s say you go into a shop and they are like, “Oh, you want to give a king some gold? Ok, here’s the standard lump of gold for a king, that’ll be $1000.”
That’s not how people buy expensive gifts for a king.
So there could have been many wise men and dozens of gifts.
And as we’ve already mentioned, they didn’t come to the stable, but to a home, and they didn’t come when Jesus was born, but maybe 6-18 months later.
It is possible that they were inspired to look for the king of the Jews because of a Jewish community in their land, maybe in Babylon. There is a prophecy from a magician in the Old Testament, in Numbers 24:17, that reads, “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” This oracle, from a guy named Balaam, who came “from the eastern mountains” (Num 23:7), was widely regarded as messianic by the Jewish people.
So maybe these astrologers connected an unusual star formation with this prophecy and decided to go looking for the Jewish messiah. That’s speculation; we just don’t know.
Wherever they came from, and however they decided to go, these were influential, wealthy, prominent religious-political intellectuals. There was no separation of church and state in the ancient world. They have the money and time to travel hundreds of miles. They bring lavish gifts. And yet they have the humility to worship Jesus, this young baby boy, as a king – and, depending on how you read the text, as God.
Think about how comprehensive this is. The wise men used their minds. They reasoned and thought about what they saw in the world. Then they took bold and sacrificial action to respond to a sign God gave them. They worked together, in a community, to find God. Their hearts were humble and reverent.
The story of the wise men is about the most unlikely people you can imagine. Imagine it! Here we have pagan astrologers honored as more holy and wise than the chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem, who rule over the Temple where Yahweh meets with his people?!?
And they are using all of their hearts, their minds, their souls, and their strength to come and worship Jesus, even when he was a little boy. They have given up months of their lives just for the chance to worship Him. They bring great gifts and leave with nothing except the memory of meeting a little child.
Application: BE WISE, BE LIKE THE WISE MEN!
The more I have thought about the wise men and their remarkable search for Jesus, the more it has become clear to me that they are still minor characters in this story.
Have you noticed the one detail that we have avoided really talking about so far?
That would be the birth of Jesus, which is so familiar to us that we are no longer surprised by it.
But if you think the wise men came a long way to meet Jesus, think what a long way Jesus came to meet them!
If you think the wise men responded well to an incredible prophecy, think how greater it is that Jesus fulfilled these ancient prophecies!
If you think the wise men offered Jesus great gifts, think what a great gift that Jesus has offered to all of us!
Not just gold and frankincense and myrrh, but his entire life!
So here’s the #1 takeaway from our text and our time together this morning:
BE LIKE THE WISE MEN AND PASSIONATELY SEEK AFTER JESUS.
When you consider what Jesus has done for us, the example of the wise men makes sense. In light of God’s great love for us, it makes sense to dedicate our minds to search for Jesus. Matthew honors people who carefully observe the world, and search the Scriptures, in an attempt to find God. The Christian faith is one that strongly advocates for the use of reason in the search for God.
And once we find God, in the person of Jesus, we are called to worship Him. And not just with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, though those are all appropriate gifts for God, but we are asked to offer our entire lives to God. Only when Jesus is Lord have we fully experience Jesus as our Savior. He is the only one who can rescue us from ourselves and lead us into the freedom and fullness of life that comes with obedience to God.
Let’s break into groups of 3, 4 or, 5, depending on what is convenient, and talk about these three questions together:
1. Herod seems to be a clear example that evil is real. Do you think evil is a real part of our world?
2. The chief priests and scribes were criticized for their indifference, fear of man, and apathy about the coming of the Messiah. Can you somewhat identify with their attitude? Do your closest friends encourage or discourage a passionate search for God?
3. The wise men went to great lengths to worship Jesus. But Jesus went to greater lengths to love them. How will you respond to God’s love for you this Christmas?
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