Sermon 12-22-19: “They Rejoiced Exceedingly with Great Joy”

December 23, 2019

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We sing a song about today’s scripture during this season: “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 wise men worked for a king; 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. 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. Besides that it’s a great song!

But I hope you get the picture: The wise men were not believers in the God revealed to us in scripture. They were pagan; they were superstitious; they were polytheists. The God of the Bible, for them, was just one god among many. And they were astrologers. If you’re a child of the ’70s and ’80s like me, you recall the late Jeane Dixon, a celebrity astrologer who used to grace the cover of supermarket tabloids this time of year, purporting to “read the stars” and predict future events in the upcoming year. There’s absolutely no biblical warrant for believing in astrology and horoscopes and all that—indeed the Bible warns against it. Don’t dabble in it; don’t mess around with it. I’m serious! 

But just because these wise men were superstitious pagans doesn’t mean they weren’t also the world’s leading experts at the science of astronomy—the movement of stars and planets. They paid closer attention to what was happening in the night sky than anyone else in the world. And these men saw something up there that was incredibly unusual—something that the average layperson looking up at the night sky would never notice. Whatever it was, it got their attention in a major way!

See, it’s likely that these men, even though they were pagans, knew about the messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. Why? Because for six hundred years—since Judah was conquered by Babylon and Jews were taken into captivity there—they had been exposed to Jewish teachers and to the Bible. They might have even heard about the messianic prophecy of a man named Balaam way back in Numbers 24:17, about a “star coming from Jacob,” which became associated with the birth of Israel’s Messiah. 

And as far as they knew, if there was a newborn king in Israel, the Messiah, where would he born? Somewhere important, like Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. Again, as far as they knew…

So they head to Jerusalem—because surely that’s where newborn king of the Jews would be found. But notice: that doesn’t quite take them all the way to Jesus. Once they arrive in Jerusalem, they start asking around: “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.” They need help traveling the additional six miles south, to Bethlehem. 

More specifically, they need… the Bible. They need the Bible to show them how to get to Jesus.

Listen, I shared some of this story in my Advent devotional booklet a few days ago, but I can’t talk about the wise men without remembering with affection and gratitude a deeply significant, formative event that took place in my life almost eleven years ago today—or close to it. I hope you won’t mind my sharing it with you—because it relates to this sermon, I promise. 

Back in the fall of 2008, I was an associate pastor at Alpharetta First, a very large and prosperous church north of Atlanta. I was one of two associate pastors; I was in mostly charge of leading and preaching in the contemporary service. The other associate pastor, Larisa, was mostly in charge of pastoral care. Meanwhile, the senior pastor, Don, was mostly in charge of playing golf! He would not mind my saying that. No, Don was an incredibly gifted pastor and leader to whom I owe a large debt of gratitude. But he did play a lot of golf! 

But one day in the fall of that year Don told me that he got a call from a man named Richard who said he was in need of pastoral care; it turns out, like many other professionals, he had recently retired and moved to Alpharetta; but he got sick shortly after moving there and was convalescing at home after a long illness. Meanwhile, his own church home was far away; he didn’t have a pastor; he was depressed. So, he asked, could Alpharetta First send a pastor out to visit him?

So it fell to me to visit him, rather than to Larisa, who would normally be the one to take the lead on pastoral care. And why did it fall to me? “I would be worried about Larisa going by herself. I don’t trust this guy. He sounds deeply troubled, like he might even be crazy. Dangerous. So I want you to go. By the way, do you have a gun?” Don said that! Anyway, I did not have a gun, but I had a cell phone, and I promise as I approached his front door I had already pre-dialed 9-1-1, and all I had to do was press the “send” button. Oh boy! I was a little spooked, thanks to Don. 

But I didn’t need to worry. We struck up a friendship that lasted for the rest of my tenure in Alpharetta. Richard was a fascinating guy. He had a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard. He was eccentric, brilliant—sort of an absentminded professor. He had spent a successful career as a scientist with NASA. And as I soon learned, he was an amateur astronomer. And one day, shortly before Christmas, when I went to visit, he ushered me over to his coffee table. He had astronomy journals, star charts, and an open Bible spread out.

“I’ve made a discovery,” he told me with excitement. “I know the date on which Jesus was born!” And it is… Are you ready? No, I didn’t write it down. I wish! I think he said it was in May of the year 5 B.C. It doesn’t matter; but it all seemed very… plausible to me. And my friend wasn’t a crackpot, either, I promise. 

The details of how he arrived at that date weren’t important. What impressed me at the time was how seriously Richard was taking the truthfulness of God’s Word: This man was much smarter than I was. He was much better educated, He knew a lot more than I did. Yet he really believed all these events associated with the Christmas story happened. Meanwhile, at the time I wasn’t so sure. See, in seminary I had entered a season of doubt. I believed in Jesus… but I had grown to doubt the Word that the very Spirit of Christ had breathed out. Looking back, I now see how unprepared I was for the ferocity of spiritual warfare that greeted me when I answered the call into ministry. Like—why wouldn’t someone answering God’s call into pastoral ministry have a big target on his back? 

But the Lord rescued me—and he did so in part through people like my eccentric friend Richard. I have no doubts anymore about these Christmas events.

See, what I learned back then—and what the wise men learned—and what some of you might need to learn today—is that we can’t get to Jesus, we can’t find Jesus, we can’t be in an ongoing relationship with Jesus, apart from God’s breathed-out Word. It’s just not possible. I’ve told you in the past about profound spiritual experiences that I’ve had with our living Lord Jesus. I’ve been filled with the Spirit. At times, I know that Jesus is right here with me. So real! So present. But these experiences have always occurred within the context of reading, studying, and meditating on scripture—or listening to the preaching of the Bible. This is the primary way we know Jesus. Just like the wise men. They couldn’t find Jesus and be in a saving relationship with him until they learned from scripture that Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. They needed the Bible and so do we!

I know sometimes we get depressed because we feel like God isn’t speaking to us. If only we could hear a word from God. We have to remind ourselves that God has given us about 750,000 words right here! And oftentimes when we feel far away from God, it’s in part because we are failing to listen to him through his Word! 

As I said, doubting God’s Word is a problem—some of you struggle with that right now. 

But you know what’s an even bigger problem for most of us in this room? Believing God’s Word… yet rarely letting it change or affect our lives very much!

We see this problem in today’s scripture! After all, it was no secret why the wise men were in Jerusalem. They had created quite a stir! According to verse 3, King Herod was “troubled,” and the rest of the city along with him. And the Bible scholars in verse 6 had ultimately pointed the wise men to Bethlehem. So all the religious leaders knew what was going on.

Given that so many Bible believers in Jerusalem knew that these wise men were in town to see the Messiah, naturally they would jump at the chance to go to Bethlehem with them and see the Messiah for themselves. Right?

Wrong…

Think about it: What does it mean that these wise men—these Gentiles, these pagans, these outsiders to faith in the one true God—traveled 600 miles west from the Persian Gulf to Judea for the sake of Christ, yet these religious people—the ones who already believed in the Bible—weren’t willing to travel six 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 indifferent? How could they be so dead—spiritually? [Keith Green]

How can we Christians be so indifferent sometimes?

Pastor and author Tim Keller says that a “perennial note of surprise” ought to be the mark of anyone who truly understands the gospel of Jesus Christ. He writes:

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.[1]

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.”[2]

When we consider how the wise men responded, we see that they were astonished at what God did to lead them to his Son. It says, in verse 10, that they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” I like the way the King James puts it: “they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” 

Do you know this “exceeding great joy”? Because notice: for these wise men, the joy came first. In other words, God did something for these wise men through Jesus Christ—which brought them a deep and lasting happiness—before the wise men ever did anything for him… for instance, giving Jesus expensive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

Was their joy at receiving this gift of salvation in Christ contingent upon giving their expensive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh? While they were traveling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, were they thinking, “We’re happy now, but I only hope that we give Jesus a good enough gift so that he won’t take away his gift of salvation? Of course not!

Remember Steve Harvey and the Miss Universe pageant a few years ago? When he announced the winner of the Miss Universe. She came forward in tears of joy as the crown was placed on her head. Celebratory music was playing. Then after a couple of minutes he said, “There’s been a mistake…” He read the wrong name! And they took the crown away from her. Do we imagine that Jesus is going to take the crown of salvation away from us? No! It won’t happen! This gift doesn’t depend on what we do but what Christ has done for us!

These wise men had received a gift from Jesus that was infinitely more precious and valuable than any gift they could give to Jesus. They received a gift from Jesus so great and amazing that it made what they had to give seem very small by comparison. And that’s okay… because the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t about what we do for Jesus; it’s about what Jesus has done for us.

See, we often think that being a Christian is very difficult—like, “What do I have to give up for Jesus? What do I have to sacrifice for him? How painful is it going to be? I mean, these wise men gave their treasure to Jesus. I’m sure he’ll ask for my treasure too!

I guess I have to give it to himUgh!”

Where’s the joy in that? 

When you look at these wise men, do they strike you as men who are giving their gifts to Jesus under compulsionreluctantly… grudgingly… because they have to? Of course not! Whatever the wise men “give to Jesus” or “give up for Jesus”—however they “serve Jesus”—they are doing so  freely… from nothing other than a place of deep and abiding happiness… “exceeding great joy.”

The joy comes first! If it doesn’t, ask yourself if you’re even a Christian?

If you know the joy of being in a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the joy of having all of your sins—past, present, and future—forgiven by God, the joy of being adopted into God’s family as a son or daughter of God through faith in Christ, the joy of being filled with his Spirit—well, I’m not saying that being a follower of Jesus isn’t difficult… But if you know this joy then you find that there is only thing more difficult than being a follower of Jesus Christ—and that is, not being a follower of Jesus Christ. Because following Jesus is the only way that you can know “exceeding great joy”… true and lasting happiness!

And this is what I want for y’all…


[1] Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 89.

[2] Ibid., 90.

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