Today’s sermon investigates three different responses to the news of the newborn king: from King Herod, from the scribes and chief priests, and from the magi. At different times, our own responses to Christ our king may be similar to each of these. How can we become more like the magi?
Sermon Text: Matthew 2:1-12
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“We three kings of orient are/ Bearing gifts we traverse afar/ Field and fountain, moor and mountain/ Following yonder star.”
Literally one of my favorite Christmas hymns. Just a beautiful melody. Yet it’s wrong in nearly every detail!
First, these magi worked for a king—they were courtiers; they were not kings themselves. They believed that the movement of the stars foretold important events happening on earth; likewise, when something important was happening on earth, they believed that it would be reflected in some way in the stars. So their job was to study the night sky, discern what important events might be happening here on earth—or might be about to happen—and report to their king what the “latest news” was. Also, we have no idea how many of them there were—probably more than three. The “three” comes from the number of gifts they gave to Jesus, but that doesn’t indicate how many of them there were. And they weren’t from the Orient; they were from the Middle East—likely Babylon, or the Persian Gulf area. So there probably weren’t three; they weren’t kings; and they weren’t from the Orient. But besides that it’s a great song!
Notice verse 2: They came to Jerusalem seeking the newborn “king of the Jews” because they saw his star rising. We don’t know what this star was—it might have been a natural astronomical event or a miraculous event created by God to lead these men to Jesus. We don’t need to get hung up on what the star was. It sounds to me like the star that led them from Babylon to Jerusalem might have been a completely natural event—highly unusual but scientifically explainable, which the wise men, because they were the world’s leading experts on the movement of stars and planets, were able to see.
But then, in verses 9 and 10, when the star moves and comes to rest over the place where Jesus is, it sounds like that is a supernatural event.
Does it matter? Not at all! If it was a natural event—which astronomers today can study and explain scientifically—it was a natural event designed by God before the Creation of the world to appear at this particular time and place in order to lead these wise men to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Just think: God is so powerful, so sovereign, so in control of this universe that he doesn’t even need to work a miracle that defies the laws of physics in order to be active in the world: he can work through natural events. God is always working at every moment in every event and through every person to accomplish his will in the world! This is called the doctrine of God’s providence, which means that we can know that everything that happens in the universe happens according to God’s plan and purpose! By the logic of providence, God is constantly intervening in the world, so, in a way, “miracles” happen all the time—even when modern science can explain why something happens. A scientific explanation is merely the most superficial reason; there’s always a deeper reason. And God is always behind it.
So, for example, years ago I was going through a very difficult trial in my life. And I remarked to a friend of mine—who happens to be Jewish—“Why is this happening to me?” And my friend said, “No, Brent, don’t ask, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ Ask instead, ‘Why is this happening to me now?’” By which he meant, what is God trying to teach you through this event? What do you need to learn? How will this help you? Because apparently my friend, who isn’t even Christian, rightly understood the Bible better than I did when it comes to God’s providence—and he rightly understood that if something was happening at all, it was happening for a reason.
And of course, this astronomical event may not have been natural at all; in which case it was a miracle from God, specially created by God on this occasion so it could be seen by these magi.
I love speculating about what the Star of Bethlehem was as much as the next guy, but let’s not miss the point. Let’s not miss the amazing thing that God is up to in today’s scripture: that God so loved the world—including these superstitious, idolatrous, pagan, polytheistic unbelievers—that God loved them so much that he led them by his grace into a saving relationship with God though Christ! It’s no exaggeration to say that God moved heaven and earth—almost literally when you think about the movement of stars and planets—to save these few people. Isn’t that awesome!
This is the message of Christmas: God loves us so much that he wants everyone in the world to be rescued from their sins, rescued from Satan, rescued from death, rescued from God’s judgment, rescued from God’s wrath, rescued from hell. We deserve nothing but eternal separation from God because of our sin and rebellion, yet God himself has intervened by coming into the world to save us! That’s the good news of Christmas!
Now I want to look at three responses to this good news.
First, the response of Herod… Let’s give Herod some credit: At least he understood exactly who Jesus was and the threat that he posed! Herod knew, among other things, that if Jesus was the Messiah, the king of the universe, and the Son of God, it meant that everything in Herod’s life would need to change; it meant that he couldn’t continue to rule his life and the lives of others in the same way; it meant that the world wasn’t big enough for two kings, and Herod would have to step aside. So naturally, Herod wanted Jesus dead!
In a new Advent devotional book called Come, Let Us Adore Him, pastor Paul David Tripp puts his finger on Herod’s ultimate problem—which is our problem as well. It’s a “glory problem,” he says.
We have preferred living for ourselves over living for something and someone bigger than ourselves. In our marriages, in our parenting, in our work, in our friendships, and in the church, we have made life all about us. We have tended to reduce the active field of our concern down to the tiny confines of our wants, our needs, our plans, our satisfaction, and our happiness. It’s not wrong to want some control, or to want to be right, or to like beautiful possessions, or to be surrounded by a community of love, but it’s wrong and spiritually dangerous for those things to rule your heart.
He goes on to say that sin makes all of us “glory thieves”: we steal for ourselves the glory that belongs to God alone. And of course this makes us miserable. We simply weren’t created to live for our own glory.
Twenty-five years ago, my first job out of college was in sales. I was mentored by an older, well-seasoned, and successful salesperson named Alec. He told me more than once that money—of which he had plenty—wasn’t a big motivator for his success: “I want recognition,” he said. Given my own modest commission checks at the time, I thought that was insane. Now, however, I totally know what he means. Unfortunately.
Oh how desperately I crave “recognition”! God help me, there is a little King Herod in my heart, and he wants glory. I am a glory thief! What about you? How is your life actively resisting Christ’s rule? How do you need to change?
The second response is that of the religious people: Notice what Matthew tells us in in verse 3: “When Herod the king heard this”—in other words, when he heard about the birth of a rival “king of the Jews”—“he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” And all Jerusalem with him. In other words, the magi’s quest for the Messiah wasn’t a secret. Everyone was hearing about it! Everyone was talking about it. Especially the chief priests and the scribes, who were the experts when it came to the Bible. They were the ones who talked to Herod and the magi, and told them that scripture prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
So naturally these men—these Bible scholars, these theologians, these believers in God’s Word—would jump at the chance to go to Bethlehem and see the newborn king. Right?
Wrong… Whereas these magi—these Gentiles, these pagans, these outsiders—traveled 700 miles west from the Persian Gulf to Judea for the sake of Christ, these “insiders”—the ones who already believed in the Bible—weren’t willing to travel seven miles south to Bethlehem to see Christ for themselves!
Shouldn’t they have been excited and overwhelmed with joy? How is it possible that they would stay home? How is it possible that nothing in their lives would change in response to the birth of the newborn king? How could they be so dead—spiritually?
But when we consider our own lives, do we really have to wonder?
Tim Keller says in his recent book Hidden Christmas that we ought to be astonished at what God has done for us in Christ: If we are Christians, after all, that means before the foundation of the world, God knew us, God elected us, God wanted us—you and me—to be with him for eternity. And God put into motion a plan that would make this intention possible. Who are we that God would do that for us? Who am I? What have I done to deserve all of this? Nothing!
And yet that’s the gospel!
I would go so far as to say that this perennial note of surprise is a mark of anyone who understands the essence of the Gospel. What is Christianity? If you think Christianity is mainly going to church, believing a certain creed, and living a certain kind of life, then there will be no note of wonder and surprise about the fact that you are a believer. If someone asks you, “Are you a Christian? you will say, “Of course I am! It’s hard work but I’m doing it. Why do you ask?” Christianity is, in this view something done by you—and so there’s no astonishment about being a Christian. However, if Christianity is something done for you, and to you, and in you, then there is a constant note of surprise and wonder.
He goes on:
So if someone asks you if you are a Christian, you should not say, “Of course!” There should be no “of course-ness” about it. It would be more appropriate to say, “Yes, I am, and that’s a miracle. Me! A Christian! Who would have ever thought it? Yet he did it, and I’m his.”
When we consider how the wise men responded, we see that they were astonished at what God did to lead them to his Son. First, it says that they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” The Christmas message, in other words, changed the way they felt—it penetrated their hearts; it affected them emotionally. Do those words judge us? Are we coming to church during this season “rejoicing exceedingly with great joy”? Why not?
Next, it says that they fell down and worshiped—and notice that their worship also included the giving of costly, sacrificial gifts. Finally, in verse 12, it says that after being warned in a dream about Herod’s intentions, the magi “departed to their own country by another way.”
For two-thousand years the church has interpreted these words symbolically as well as historically. Recall that in the Book of Acts, the Christian movement was called “the way,” and Jesus said in John 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life…” The magi were now following a new and different and better way—the way of Jesus Christ. So their lives were permanently changed as a result of their encounter with Christ.
What about our lives? In the face of this good news of Christmas, why aren’t we astonished like these wise men? Why are our lives so often left unchanged? Why does our life, instead of “going by another way,” so often continue “the same old way” after we get baptized, after we get confirmed, after we join the church?
I think we can answer this question in part by looking at the gifts that the wise men gave. Now I promise you I’m not about to preach another message on financial stewardship, as tempting as that would be. This is not a financial stewardship message—because when I talk about gifts I’m not only or mostly talking the gift of money. I’m talking about giving any gift to Jesus: which includes the gift of our money; the the gift of our time and attention; the gift of our talents; the gift of our possessions; the gift of our strength and energy.
Now, if you know me, you know I hate the prosperity gospel, which is often taught by preachers on TV, like Creflo Dollar and others. I utterly reject the message that if we give financially, we can expect to receive something financially in return that exceeds what we gave, or that God will bless us with greater wealth if we give, or God will bless us with greater health if we give. I don’t believe that. God may bless us with health and wealth, to be sure, but God may also have us fed to the lions in the coliseum. Either way, God will be glorified. We follow a Savior who tells us to pick up our cross, our instrument of torture and death, and follow him. Who tells us that if we lose our lives for his sake, we will find our lives. Who tells us to give up everything for his sake.
This is not compatible with the prosperity gospel.
But I promise you this: If you give to Jesus, you will receive something in return. And you’re thinking, “Brent, that sounds terrible. Have you lost your mind? You were just saying that you hate the prosperity gospel, with its emphasis on receiving something in return for our gifts, yet now you’re saying that the Lord will give us something in return for the gift of our money, the gift of our possessions, the gift of our time, the gift of our talents? What are you talking about?”
If we give our gifts sacrificially to Jesus—whatever those gifts are, up to and including our very lives—we will receive something in return: We will receive… more of Jesus!
Our problem is, we’re not convinced that receiving more of Jesus—more of his grace, more of his love, more of his spiritual gifts, more of his supernatural power, a greater sense of his presence in our lives—we’re not convinced that receiving more of Jesus is worth what we have to give up in order to receive more of him! Having more of Jesus isn’t worth it to us right now—we don’t treasure Jesus as much as we treasure all these other things in our lives—so we’re afraid to give ourselves completely to Jesus! We’re afraid!
We’re afraid to do what the wise men do and “return by another way”—which means we’re afraid to live our lives differently from 99.9 parent of our friends and neighbors. We’re afraid to live under the kingship of Jesus—we’re afraid to submit to him completely, we’re afraid to live completely under his authority and the authority of God’s Word, we’re afraid to live completely for his glory rather than our own glory… We’re afraid!
We need to heed the example of these wise men: For them, Jesus was worth not merely the gold, frankincense, and myrrh—which was costly… not merely traveling 1,400 miles round-trip, which was costly… not merely going home “by another way,” which was costly because it’s clear that they were putting their now lives in danger by crossing the murderous King Herod… They were willing to risk everything because Jesus was worth it to them.
And they are in heaven now—enjoying Jesus in way that we who are here on earth can hardly imagine. If they could return to us for a moment and speak to us, what would they say? They would say, “Jesus is worth everything you can give. Don’t be afraid to give yourselves completely to him. Don’t hold back… Having more of Jesus is worth everything you could possibly give.”