Stealing the Season
Last week, I talked about how we have been given a hope and joy and should embrace it, knowing that it can absolutely never be taken away from us, and therefore we should absolutely never settle for anything less, never trying to fill it with anything else or letting anything in to steel it. Yet our joy can so easily be stolen right out from under us – through things like complaining and especially our sin.
As we are closing in on Christmas, and it’s now crunch time to get our planning and preparations done, many of our Christmas traditions have been cut this year. Things aren’t going the way we planned. There’s so much negativity around us, but I really don’t want the real treasure of Christmas to be stolen out from under you.
The hope, the joy, the point of Christmas after all, is that God came to dwell with us so that we could dwell with Him forever. As John reminds us in the first chapter of his Gospel, the “Word was God…[and] the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1, 14).
When you think of the enormity of God, the complexity of His creation, the magnificence of His glory, this effort for our salvation is way beyond comprehension. Why would God go to such lengths to restore us to Himself? Well, the answer is wrapped up in the one word in 1 John 4:8: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” That’s His nature, that’s who He is.
So with Christmas almost here, the pressure is on in our preparations, and I want to help us preserve and protect the real treasure and meaning of the holiday by looking at the account of the Magi. In this short account in Matthew 2, we see three very different responses to this wonderful event. King Herod, the teachers of the law, and the Magi all take a totally different approach to Jesus’s birth.
For Herod and the Pharisees, the meaning and the power of the event are completely lost and stolen. When we consider that that night was the completion of hundreds and even thousands of years of prophecies, when we consider that God went to these great lengths for us, when we remember that Jesus did indeed save us from our sins, we should all be doing exactly what the Magi did. In response to what God did that night, the Magi worshiped Him. And worship can never be stolen from us.
Enter the Wise Men
Let’s take a look at all three of these reactions to the amazing events of Christmas:
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 when it rose 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 Messiah 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 shepherd 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 search carefully 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 when it rose 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, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Despite what many of us sing every year and what we see in almost every nativity display, you’ll notice that the Magi weren’t kings and that the Bible doesn’t say exactly how many of them there were. We really don’t know much about these wise men.
Tradition says they were men of high position from Parthia, near the site of ancient Babylon. The Greek word for Magi loosely covers a wide variety of men interested in things like dreams, astrology, books thought to contain mysterious references to the future, and so forth. So instead of kings, very likely they were scholars and astrologers who had some knowledge and belief in the Hebrew Scriptures. How did they get that knowledge and belief? Well…
- They could have been Jews who remained in Babylon after the exile and knew the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah’s coming.
- Or they may have been eastern astrologers who studied ancient manuscripts from around the world. And because of the Jewish exile centuries earlier, they would have hand copies of the Old Testament in their land.
- Or they may have had a special message from God directing them to the Messiah. Afterall, God did give them message in a dream to go home another route and not return to Herod.
The tradition that there were three of them probably comes from the fact that there were three gifts given to Jesus, but it’s possible that each gift came from a number of Magi.
We don’t know what the star was either. Some say this star may have been a conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus. Some think it was a comet or a supernova. Others believe it was a purely supernatural event—like the pillar of fire or cloud that led the Israelites through the desert during the Exodus. Whatever the nature of the star, these Magi traveled thousands of miles searching for a king, and they found him. (Rare Christmas Star – Jupiter and Saturn Dec. 21 within the first hour after sunset in the western sky).
The most amazing thing about the Magi is that in this short account in Matthew, these non-Jewish foreigners with questionable religious practices who were gazing at the stars were the only ones who responded appropriately to Jesus’s birth. It serves as a stark reminder for those of us who are in the Church and consider ourselves to be followers of Jesus. Are we, like the Magi, focusing on our worship, adoration, and gifts for the King? Or are we so familiar with the story that our wonder has been lost or even stolen?
Many times, we expect God to come looking for us, to explain himself, prove who He is, and give us gifts. But those who are wise still seek and worship Jesus today, not for what they can get, but for who He is. While we might expect those outside the faith to miss the real meaning of Christmas, the real question for us is will we make certain our hearts stay focused on what this holiday really means?
Leading Priests and Teachers of Law
A little later we’ll dive a little deeper into the Magi’s response. But before we do, let’s consider another response we see in Matthew 2:4–6. After encountering the Magi, Herod called the chief priests and the teachers of the law together and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. They shared the answer by quoting the prophet Micah, who pointed to Bethlehem about seven hundred years before Jesus was born. But we never hear another thing about the chief priests and teachers of the law again.
This is really interesting because the teachers of the law and the chief priests have just heard that the Messiah has been born. They quote the Scriptures. And in response, the ones who have dedicated their lives to God and the Scriptures, the ones who make their living from teaching about God’s law and His prophecies about the Messiah do nothing. They don’t investigate; they don’t search Him out. They just say, “He’s probably over that way somewhere or it’s not really true.”
Imagine that you’re the president of the Justin Bieber fan club in our town. I know for some that may be too painful to consider, but please try. Imagine that Justin sent you an email that he’s going to do a free concert in your town, and he wants to know where to stay. As his biggest fan in the world, you respond with an email telling him to try the local Holiday Inn. Then you get back to work, get back to your business as usual, and forget about it. We all know that if the real president of his fan club received that email, she would be there at the concert. She would have hundreds of screaming friends with her. There would be crying, shaking, and fainting. There wouldn’t be any ignoring or business as usual.
The priests and teachers of the law are waiting and teaching about the Messiah. When news comes that He’s arrived, they give Herod the biblical answer: “Head on over to Bethlehem.” But they don’t do anything else about it. From what it appears, the Pharisees were only excited about the fact that they were able to give the correct answer. But it seems like they didn’t really care about the Messiah Himself—the One they knew so much about. They were more interested in what they knew about the Messiah than about the opportunity they had to come to know, and receive, and actually worship the Messiah.
Just from our talk so far today, you now probably know more about the Magi than 80 percent of the population, but don’t let your knowledge and how much you’re familiar with the events of Christmas steal away the wonder of it! It’s important to learn about God. It’s essential to study His Word and His commands. But don’t make the mistake the teachers and priests made where they put knowing about God above knowing God.
Jesus didn’t say, “I know my sheep, and my sheep know about me.” He said, “I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (John 10:14). God reveals Himself through His Word, but the whole point is to draw close to Him in order to know Him more and to become more like Him in His love. As the Bible says, “while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church.” (1 Corinthians 8:1). God showed up on Christmas so we can know Him and have a relationship with Him. Just because you are so familiar with this story or have new knowledge about it, don’t let that steal the treasure of Christmas from your heart.
King Herod the Great
Let’s look at another response to the first Christmas. When King Herod heard that the Magi had come to worship the One who had been born King of the Jews, he was quite disturbed. Herod was actually very paranoid and very power hungry. History tells us that he killed his own two sons and at least one wife because he was jealous and threatened by their power. To top it off, Herod only pretended that he wanted to worship Jesus, because we see later in this chapter that his plan was really to try to kill the Messiah.
Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance.
Herod’s response to Christmas is an extreme example of self-preservation and fighting for the status quo—the exact opposite of the worship the Magi showed. Herod treats the news of Christmas in the same way he responds to any threats of his power—he tries to eliminate it. He fakes interest in worship so he can simply have his way.
While few of us would actively fight against the Messiah, there is a little bit Herod in most of us that we need to keep in check and guard against. It’s the part of us that takes from the glory of Jesus in this season by putting our traditions above our worship. It’s the part of us that elevates our expectations above the needs of others. Whenever we demand that things go our way in the holiday above what God might be doing or what others need, we make a very similar mistake to the one King Herod made on the first Christmas.
I love Christmas traditions, but we all need to allow God to adjust our plans however He’d like. I want to encourage you to allow God to interrupt your plans if He so desires. I know we’ve all had a lot of interruptions in our plans and traditions this year. But part of worship is allowing God to have His way even when it collides with our preferences or expectations. Herod was so concerned with keeping control that he not only missed the greatest blessing in history, but he fought directly against it. Don’t make that same mistake.
A Wise Example
As we consider our preparation and response to the wonder of Christmas, let’s look closer at the example of the Magi. When they saw the child with his mother, they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. By scripture, other than they were from the east, we know nothing else about the Magi. But we do know that in light of what God had done, their response is the only one that makes sense.
If you want to guard the meaning and wonder of Christmas, I suggest that you start with worship. There is nothing that centers our hearts and minds on what really matters like worship. We don’t worship God because He’s in need of it. We worship God because we are in need of it. Giving Him the praise He’s due reminds us of who He really is. Our worship fuels and feeds our gratitude. Our worship brings us back to the grandeur, the grace, and the greatness of God. When we worship, we experience a deeper connection with God and fall deeper in love with Him.
Now you are probably thinking, but one of our ways to worship has just been taken from us. (Rock Chapel Christmas Eve Services are canceled). However, we are still going to worship Him here at YSUMC at 7pm on Christmas Eve. If you aren’t able to be here or even if you are, you can still worship Him! We all know the lyrics to Silent Night. Read the Christmas story of Christ’s birth in Matthew and Luke, light a candle in honor of Jesus, the light, who has come to shine through the darkness, and sing Silent Night (the song was actually written to be sung acapella).
Sometimes, in a quiet setting by yourself, worship can take on a whole new meaning. We need church, we need each other, but you also need your relationship with God. So why not spend some one on one time with Him. I think God is using this time to thin out all the stuff and focus on Him.
There are hundreds of passages in the Bible that have the word worship in them. The common theme that runs through the majority of them is the idea of giving preference to God and laying what we have and who we are before Him. There are a number of ways to do that. In the Bible, people worship by bowing, lying facedown, lifting hands, clapping, serving, making sacrifices, singing joyfully, thanking, giving, kneeling, shouting, confessing, exalting, dancing, and responding in Spirit and in truth.
We can plainly see that the teachers of the law should have known better. They knew about God, but they didn’t seek to know Him personally. We can easily tell that Herod chose the wrong thing. How ironic that as Herod tried to prop up his greatness, he chose the lesser thing. His own power could never match the power of God. His position could never compare with the presence of God. The Magi show us the way to make the most of Christmas—through worship!
The Magi worshiped through their long trip to get to Him, and their gifts and offerings. The shepherds worshiped through proclaiming the good news. The angels worshiped through song. Mary worshiped by pondering all the amazing events in her heart. If we do anything this Christmas, let’s remember what God has done and give God His due. He is worthy of worship.
Like the Magi, you can choose whatever form of worship best fits the occasion. The Magi had precious metal and spices—they gave God what they had. What do you have to give to Jesus this Christmas? The beauty of worship is that it can be done in so many ways: through song, through prayer, through gathering and fellowship, through celebration, even through service or your job.
If you have kids whose eyes fill up with delight on Christmas morning, I hope you see that as an opportunity to thank God and quietly worship Him for giving you family. As you share meals, I hope you begin in gratitude for His provision. If you face disappointment or heartache, I hope you find a way to identify with the ultimate reason for Christmas—the cross of Jesus. As you raise a toast or come to church, I pray that your head bows to the Mighty Creator and your heart lifts in joy because of all that He’s done for us!
The Magi worshiped the King. It was not because they were supposed to or because He required it, but because their hearts demanded it of them. They encountered the Word who became flesh, God with us, and they were never the same again. All the more as Christmas nears, let’s seek God and give Him the worship and praise He rightly deserves. May He meet you in your gift and may you find Him like all wise men do.
Father, thank You that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Please reveal the areas in our lives that reflect the heart of Herod. Please protect us from being so familiar with You and Your Word that we over look your gift. Give us hearts like the Magi, who sought You and when they found You, worshiped You. Be present in our Christmas and may You be glorified in our lives. In Jesus’ name, amen.