Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
I love today’s scripture, in part because it reminds me of a formative event in my own life as a Christian. My Wednesday night Bible study has already heard this testimony, but I’d like to share it with you. About 13 years ago, I was serving a large church, Alpharetta First United Methodist, as one of two associate pastors. Like April I was in the process of becoming fully ordained. Unlike April, I was in a bad place, spiritually speaking, with my faith.
It was in part because, unlike April, I went to a mainline Protestant seminary that deliberately sowed seeds of doubt in the truthfulness of scripture—including the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. Looking back, I was unprepared for the spiritual warfare that came my way when I decided to answer God’s call into ministry. I was like a sheep led to the slaughter! And as a result, I graduated from seminary riddled with doubts.
Suffice it to say that I don’t for a moment doubt the Virgin Birth anymore. And I could easily and happily answer the objections of my skeptical seminary professors today. But that’s not where I was in 2007, shortly after graduation, when the senior pastor of the large church I served gave me an assignment: He got a call the day before from a man who said he’d like for a pastor to visit him. He said he needed prayer and pastoral care. This man wasn’t a member of our church. His home church was in another state. He had recently moved to the area when he got very sick, and he’d spent several months convalescing at home, cut off from his church family.
So he told Don, the senior pastor, he needed a pastor to come see him. And so Don gave that assignment to me. Larisa, the other associate pastor, had primary responsibility for “pastoral care.” She would normally be the one to make the visit. But Don said, “I don’t feel comfortable sending Larisa. I’m worried this man might be crazy. So I don’t think it’s safe for her to go. So I’m sending you. And by the way, do you have a gun?”
He asked me that! I did not have a gun. But I had a cell phone. And I promise you, as I knocked on the front door of his home, I had already pre-dialed 9-1-1, and I was ready to press “send.” I’m serious! I’m a scaredy-cat!
Anyway, my fears were unfounded, as it turns out. This was a very sweet, deeply Christian man—if a bit eccentric… an absent-minded professor type. In fact, this man literally had a Ph.D. from Harvard. He had spent his career as an engineer with NASA, and he was now retired.
We became friends, and I visited him frequently. One day, shortly before Christmas a few months later, I paid him a visit: He met me at the door, excited to show me what he’d been working on: He said, “I think I know the exact date of Jesus’ birth.” And on his coffee table were astronomy journals, calculators, and star charts scattered around—not to mention a Bible open to today’s scripture!
My friend, it turns out, was an amateur astronomer, and while cross-referencing today’s scripture, he walked me, step-by-step, through his work, which led him to conclude that Jesus was born on this day. Are you ready for me to give it to you?
I don’t remember. I didn’t write it down. Sadly.
And I’m not even saying he was right. He admitted there was a lot of guesswork involved based on various assumptions. But that wasn’t important. What was important to me at the time is that here was a deeply intellectual man whom I respected, who was much smarter than I was, who knew far more science than I knew—not to mention all those skeptical professors at my seminary—and yet here was someone who simply believed the Bible, including the Virgin Birth, the angels and shepherds, and the magi and the miraculous star.
If a Christian like him has no trouble believing the Bible, why do I?
That made a huge impact on me. In a way, God was using my friend the same way he was using this star—to lead me to Jesus, or at least to lead me back to him, back to believing wholeheartedly in him, back to trusting in God’s Word. To say the least, this experience was one important turning point in my life, in my faith, in my ministry.
But whether my friend knew the exact date or not, he was exactly right about these “wise men.” The Greek word is magi, which is the root of the word “magic.” The word could rightly be translated as astrologer but that’s misleading. When we hear astrologer—if we’re of a certain age—what do we think of? Jeanne Dixon. At least I do! Back in the ’70s and ’80s, the supermarket tabloids always featured her predictions for the new year. Remember? So when we hear astrologer, we think of this superstitious nonsense.
And of course, like Jeanne Dixon, these magi also believed in superstitious nonsense. They believed that when something significant or unusual was happening in the night sky, with the stars and planets, that meant that something significant or unusual was happening, or would soon be happening, on earth. So these magi believed that the movement of stars and planets predicted the future… or heralded urgent news about the present! But in order for them to make these predictions, they had to first understand the movement of stars and planets.
So make no mistake: These men were superstitious. They were pagans. They were polytheists. They were idolaters. They were very far from faith in the God of Israel, the one true God. But they were also the world’s foremost experts in the science of astronomy. So they would notice unusual astronomical events.
So let’s say that the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which we saw last week, was what the Wise Men saw. As I said on Christmas Eve, it’s possible. Here’s how they might have interpreted it. In ancient astrology, Jupiter was the planet associated with kings and royalty. Saturn was a planet associated with Israel. So… something have to do with royalty, something having to do with Israel… And since these magi were from Babylon, the Persian Gulf area, they would likely have interacted with members of the Jewish community that had settled there after Jews were deported to Babylon 600 years earlier. Perhaps they even read their scripture, including the oracle of Balaam in Numbers 24:17, who spoke of a “star coming forth out of” Israel, which they knew had something to do with the Messiah.
So they put all these things together… Star, royalty, Israel, Messiah… and it’s not hard to see why this might lead these men to Jerusalem, to the capital of Israel, asking about the whereabouts of a the newborn “king of the Jews.” At least that’s how God used this star to reach them with the gospel. For them, the heavens were announcing the good news of the birth of Christ. And they responded in faith. And they responded with joy. And they were saved.
And I want to say more about their response in a moment… but there are two other responses to the news of Jesus’ birth in today’s scripture: hostility, as exemplified by King Herod, and indifference, as exemplified by the chief priests and scribes.
First, hostility… Now let’s give Herod some credit: At least he understood exactly who Jesus was and the threat that he Jesus posed! Herod knew, for instance, that if Jesus was the Messiah, the king of the Jews, the king of the universe, the Son of God, it meant that everything in Herod’s life would have 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!
And for Herod, killing people who posed a threat to him was, tragically, just another day at the office. He had three of his own sons killed, whom he believed were conspiring to take his throne. This prompted the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus—who gave Herod his kingship—to joke that it was safer to be a pig in Herod’s household than a son… Why? Because even though Herod wasn’t ethnically Jewish, he followed Jewish dietary laws and refused to eat pork. So pigs were safer than sons! Herod also had one of his own wives killed because he believed she was conspiring against him. So the fact that he would later send his soldiers to slaughter all male children in Bethlehem two and under… that was perfectly in keeping with what we know about him.
He was a bad man.
So I hope you won’t be too offended if I ask you—and me—to consider some ways in which… maybe… we’re not so different… from Herod. Listen to the way pastor Tim Keller puts it in his book Hidden Christmas:
“Why do you think it is so hard to pray? Why do you think it is so hard to concentrate on the most glorious person possible? Why, when God answers a prayer, do you say, “Oh, I will never forget this, Lord,” but soon you do anyway? How many times have you said, “I will never do this again!” and two weeks later you do it again? In Romans 7:15 Paul says, “What I hate I do.” There is still a little King Herod inside you. It means you have got to be far more intentional about Christian growth, about prayer, and about accountability to other people to overcome your bad habits. You can’t just glide through the Christian life. There is still something in you that fights it.”
Is he right? Is there something within you that fights your efforts to surrender to the Lordship of Christ? Of course there is! I’m currently reading Paul’s letter to Titus in my quiet time. In the very first verse, Paul calls himself a “servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ.” But the English word “servant” in that verse is a little weak. In Greek the word is literally slave. In the first century, a slave was someone who usually “sold himself into slavery” in order to pay off debts… the way we might think of indentured servants. So first-century slavery was usually voluntary. And it usually lasted for a limited period of time. But for as long as you were a slave, you had no rights. You belonged completely to someone else! You existed to serve them.
So does the Bible mean when it says we’re supposed to be servants of God like that?
Because let’s face it: although we often talk about “serving God,” we never talk about being God’s slaves! We often talk about “serving God” as if it’s something we do at our own convenience. But if we’re a “servant” the way Paul is a servant, that means our lives are completely at the disposal of God. It means we voluntarily surrender our rights before God. It means our time is not our own to do with as we please; it belongs to God. Our money doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to God. Our lives are not our own to do with as we please. They belong to God.
If I’m a servant of God the way the Bible says I should be, that means I should wake up each day with one overriding thought: How can I please my Lord today? What can I do for him today? What can I give for him today? How can bring glory to him today—what can I do to make him look great?
I don’t usually do that. Instead, I wake up each day with my own agenda. And the extent to which I’m happy on that particular day—or sad or angry or depressed—usually depends not on whether I’ve pleased God, but whether I’ve been able to follow through on my agenda.
And I’m secretly hoping that God’s agenda won’t interfere very much with my agenda!
Why am I like this? Because I have a “little Herod” living inside of me! I’m very reluctant to step down off the throne of my life and let Jesus sit there… in my place. And I’m guessing you’re not so different from me!
So we’re a lot like Herod… But we may be even more like the chief priests and scribes in today’s scripture. These were, after all, the pastors, bishops, district superintendents, Sunday school teachers, and Admin Board members of their day. These people believed the Bible. They went to church all the time. They knew that magi coming to town meant that the messianic prophecy might soon be coming to pass. So naturally these men, of all people—these Bible scholars, 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—Gentiles, pagans, idolators, and outsiders to God’s people Israel—whereas they traveled 700 miles west from the Persian Gulf to Judea for the sake of Christ, the “insiders”—the ones who already believed in the Bible—weren’t willing to travel seven measly miles south to Bethlehem to see Christ for themselves!
“No, thanks!” they said. “We’ll just stay here at church.” Shouldn’t they have been excited and overwhelmed with joy? 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?
I mean, chances are if you’re at church this morning, you already believe in the right doctrines: you believe in God, you believe in his Son Jesus, you believe he died on the cross to save you from your sins. Chances are you’ve got it all together up here, intellectually.
But please hear the warning of today’s scripture: Believing all the right things up here won’t save you apart from letting those beliefs penetrate your heart! Remember the apostle James’s warning, when he argues that saving faith will naturally result in good works. He says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”
After all, Satan himself could intellectually ascribe to everything we say we believe in the Apostles’ Creed! He knows firsthand that it’s all true! So what? It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t lead us to repentance… it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t fundamentally change the way we live!
There was a powerful, influential 20th-century English pastor named Martin Lloyd-Jones, who had an effective test for whether or not someone was genuinely a Christian. He would ask them, “Are you a Christian?” And often, in England at that time, at least, people would get defensive: “Of course I am! It’s hard work but I’m doing it. Why do you ask?” Because for most people, Christianity was mostly about things you had to do: go to church, believe in certain doctrines, live a certain kind of life. It’s something done by you—so there’s no astonishment about being a Christian.
True Christianity, by contrast, is something done for you, and to you, and in you. And Lloyd-Jones said that when you understand that, there should be a constant note of surprise and wonder and joy. After all, if we’re Christians, that means before the foundation of the world, God knew us, God elected us, God wanted us to be with him for eternity. And God put into motion a plan to make that happen!
Who are we that God would do that for us? Who am I? What have I done to deserve all of this? Nothing!
So Martin Lloyd-Jones’s point is, “if someone asks you if you’re a Christian, you shouldn’t say, ‘Of course!’ There should be no ‘of course-ness’ about it. It would be more appropriate to say, “Yes, I am a Christian, and that’s a miracle, isn’t it? Me! A Christian! Who would have ever thought it? Yet God did all this for me, and I’m his.”
To say the least, there was no “of-course-ness” about the way the magi responded to Christ. Why? Because these men were superstitious Gentile pagans, polytheists, and idolaters. A couple of magi, by the way, show up in the Book of Acts, and we can see from the way they’re portrayed there… they were not considered morally good, upstanding people of high character.
On the contrary, these would be the last people we would expect Jesus to save, yet—in Matthew’s gospel—they’re practically the first ones he saved. I mean, God literally moved heaven and earth to reach them with the gospel. That’s how much he loved them and wanted to save them! And these men understood what God did for them! Nothing else explains verse 10: they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”
How many times in your life have you “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy”? Dear Lord, give me that kind of joy! I want to know that kind of joy! Don’t you? I want to come to church and worship the way these magi worshiped! Are we worshiping with joy?
How do we at least move in the direction of worshiping like that?
As with the magi, it’s by reminding ourselves again and again and again what God has done to bring us into a right relationship with him! Or to bring us back into a right relationship with him. I shared a testimony of how God did that in my own life… in part because it brings me joy to remember what God graciously did for me—even 25 years after I first became a Christian! There is no “of-course-ness” about the fact that I stand before you today as a beloved son of God, adopted into God’s family by grace. Because if it were up to me to be “righteous enough” to maintain my place in God’s family I would have been lost a long time ago! So it brings me joy to tell you how gracious God has been to me… about the miraculous and supernatural lengths to which he has gone to rescue me, a lost sheep, time and time again!
Even in today’s scripture there’s a reminder of what it would soon cost God to rescue lost sheep like us… Do you see it? Look at verse 2: These magi refer to Jesus as “king of the Jews.” Nowhere else in the gospels is Jesus called by this title… until the end… when Pilate asks Jesus if that’s who he is… when Roman soldiers mock him with that title and beat him and spit on him and place a crown of thorns on his head… when Pilate affixes a sign on the cross with that title…
So even today’s scripture foreshadows the cross… “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
By the way, historians have asked the question, “Who was Hitler before Hitler?” In other words, before the 1930s or ’40s, when everyone knew that Hitler was the very embodiment of evil, what historical figure was most often cited… as the embodiment of evil? Historians say that none other than King Herod played that role. When you wanted to compare someone to someone who was really evil, you would compare them to Herod. He set the bar for really evil men. Isn’t that interesting?
And yet… shocking as it is to say, God loved him enough to bring the gospel even to him… The magi brought him the gospel… enough of the gospel for him to repent of his sins and be saved for eternity. Even Herod had a chance. God wouldn’t let him die without giving him a chance to be saved. And of course he rejected the gospel. But if he hadn’t, if he had repented and believed in Jesus, none of us would say, “Of course Herod is a Christian!” We would say, “Isn’t God’s grace amazing… because no one deserves it less than Herod.”
Friends, if God has enough love and grace to offer salvation to him, don’t doubt for a moment that God has enough love and grace to offer it to you! You can repent and be saved even today!