Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
What can we learn from these magi, or wise men, in today’s scripture about finding Jesus, following Jesus, and falling in love with Jesus? I want to focus on three things: The first thing we learn is that we all need God’s word, holy scripture. The second thing is that Jesus wants to be in a saving relationship with everyone… He wants to be at the very center of everyone’s life. And when he is—the third thing—Jesus changes everything…
But first, in order to find, follow, and fall in love with Jesus, we need to listen to his Word, the Bible…
I love today’s scripture, in part because it reminds me of a happy formative event in my life as a Christian. About 15 years ago, I was serving a large church, Alpharetta First United Methodist, as one of two associate pastors. I had been out of seminary for less than a year—and as I’ve told you before, seminary was a rough time for me, spiritually speaking. I was ill-prepared to fight the spiritual warfare that came to me and to many of my colleagues who had decided to answer God’s call into pastoral ministry. So I experienced a long season of doubt. What I didn’t know back in 2007 is that I would soon emerge from this season of doubt, big-time… and I would soon experience what I have called my “evangelical re-conversion.” God gave me a renewed confidence that his Word, holy scripture, really is telling the truth; that I really can trust it; that I really can build my life on its solid foundation.
And in a small way, the experience I’m about to describe played a small role in the renewal of my faith. It makes me happy to think about it, which I always do when I preach on today’s scripture.
As I said, I was an associate pastor at a large church. The senior pastor 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 former church family.
So he told Don, the senior pastor, that he wanted a pastor to come visit 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 this kind of visit. But Don said, “I don’t feel comfortable sending Larisa. Frankly, 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, instead… And by the way, do you own a gun?”
He asked me that! I did not have a gun. But I did have 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. And he had spent his career as an engineer with NASA. Now he was 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 particular day. Are you ready for me to give it to you the exact date of Jesus’ birth?
He said it was…
I don’t remember what he said. 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 whether he was right or wrong about the date wasn’t important. What was important to me at that time was this: Here was a deeply intellectual man whom I respected, who was much smarter than I was, who knew far more science than I knew, and yet here was someone who simply believed the Bible was telling the truth—including telling the truth about the Virgin Birth, about the angels and shepherds, about the magi and the miraculous star of Bethlehem.
If a man like him has no trouble believing the Bible, why do I? He’s the scientist, after all. Shouldn’t he, of all people, be skeptical of miracles. I’m the pastor… I’m supposed to believe the Bible. What’s wrong with me?
That made a huge impact on me. In a way, God was using my NASA friend the same way he was using this star—he was leading me to Jesus, or at least leading me back to him, back to believing wholeheartedly in him, back to trusting in his Word. To say the least, this experience was one important turning point in my life, in my faith, in my ministry.
And make no mistake: today’s scripture also has something important to say about the authority of scripture: By all means, God “spoke to these Wise Men” in a language that they understood: the language of stars and planets. God gave them an astronomical sign to follow, to get their attention, to lead them to Jesus…
But please notice: The movement of stars and planets didn’t lead them all the way to Jesus. They arrive in Jerusalem, where they apparently lose track of the star—or it stops shining. And it’s only after they consult with Bible scholars in Jerusalem—who tell them that, according to the Bible, the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem… it’s only after that they go to that city of David, and on their way, they see the star again; it leads them the rest of the way.
In order to find Jesus, these magi needed to believe God’s Word! They acted on what God’s Word revealed to them, and then the star led them the rest of the way! If you want to find Jesus, and know Jesus, and love Jesus, and worship Jesus, to say the least, you need to believe God’s Word!
The second thing we learn about finding, following, and falling in love with Jesus is that Jesus wants everyone to do so. In other words, he wants everyone to know and love him! He wants everyone to follow him. He wants everyone to be saved!
After all, let’s consider who these “wise men” were: 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 plenty of superstitious nonsense. Make no mistake: These men were superstitious. They were pagans. They were polytheists. They were idolaters. They literally worshiped the stars. 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… the unusual movement of stars and planets.
So suppose that the conjunction of the the planets Jupiter and Saturn—which I think is what my NASA friend thought the “star of Bethlehem” was… suppose that was what the Wise Men saw. Here’s how the magi 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 having to do with royalty, something having to do with Israel… And since these magi were from Babylon, the Persian Gulf area, present-day Iraq, 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, seeking the whereabouts of a the newborn “king of the Jews.” At least that’s how God possibly 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 they were something else, too… They were Gentiles… They were outsiders to God’s people Israel.
It’s as if Matthew were showing us, near the very beginning of his gospel, that this good news, which was announced by an angel in that dream to Joseph in last Sunday’s scripture, in Matthew chapter 1… this good news that Jesus would save his people from their sins—was intended not only for God’s people Israel, but for the entire world.
Actually, though, Matthew has already tipped his hand and shown us this back before the angel came to Joseph, in verses 1 to 17. Matthew showed us that the gospel was for outsiders in his genealogy of Jesus. If you have your Bibles—and even on Christmas Day, you should—flip back to chapter 1.
I know it’s difficult to read genealogies without having your eyes glaze over, but I invited you to concentrate on these names. If so, you may notice something strange…
The genealogy, like all genealogies of ancient Israel, include mostly fathers’ names… except…it also includes four mothers: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah,” otherwise known as Bathsheba. Look at the rest of the genealogy. There are no other mothers mentioned, at least until Mary in verse 16. Why are these four women mentioned?
To say the least, they have interesting backstories. Tamar, in verse 3, slept with her father-in-law, Judah. Rahab, in verse 5, was a prostitute from Jericho who protected the two Israelite spies when they came to gather intelligence before Israel’s on against the city. Ruth was a Moabite—in other words, she was from a nation that was considered a hated enemy of Israel. And the wife of Uriah happens to be Bathsheba, the woman with whom King David had an adulterous affair, and whose husband, Uriah, David arranged to kill in order to protect their secret.
But why mention these women? It’s not simply because of their sinful past—good heavens, so many of these kings of Judah were wicked, and of course all of them were sinners in need of a savior.
Well, I believe Matthew mentions them because they’re all Gentiles. And God wants to remind us that these Gentile sinners, these outsiders, these former enemies of God, belong in the exact same family with God’s Son Jesus. Because of what Christ did for us through his death and resurrection, through faith we outsiders are now brothers and sisters of our Lord. Christ’s Father has now become our Father. We are part of God’s family forever—just like these other outsiders, these former enemies of God,these sinners…
Matthew leaves it to Luke to include the Jewish shepherds who came to worship Jesus on the night he was born—we looked at that last night. But in Matthew’s gospel the first worshipers of Jesus are Gentiles—just like most of us!
Suffice it to say, if there’s room for sinners, outsiders, and former enemies in Jesus’ family tree—and some of Jesus’ first worshipers and converts are people just like them, well… guess what? There’s surely room for someone like me—and you—in Jesus’ family as well! So that’s good news!
So whether we’re particularly “wise” men or women, if we are followers of Jesus we can still identify in a positive way with these magi! And that’s Point Number 2: Jesus wants to save everyone… No one is disqualified from being in God’s family. No one is “too big a sinner” to have one’s sins forgiven and to receive eternal life. And this includes even you and me!
The third thing we learn about finding, following, and following in love with Jesus is that it requires action. To find, follow, and fall in love with Jesus changes everything in our lives!
I said that if we’re Christians, we can identify in a positive way with these magi…
But we may also identify—like it or not—with the chief priests and scribes in today’s scripture. They’re not so different from some of us. These were the senior pastors, the bishops, the district superintendents, the Sunday school teachers, the Admin Board members, the church leaders of their day. These people who 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, these “theological conservatives,” these “evangelicals”… surely these people 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 about 600 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 even six miles south to Bethlehem to see Christ for themselves!
“No, thanks!” they probably 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 and spill over into concrete action! 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 what we believe if it doesn’t lead us to repentance… if it doesn’t fundamentally change the way we live!
Meanwhile, consider verse 12, about these magi: “And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.” These magi just got converted, and immediately their faith was put to the test: Would they do the safe, easy, risk-free thing and report back to Herod where Jesus was? Or would they do the costly, risky, dangerous thing and take their lives into their hands and defy a powerful king, disobey a dangerous king… because they really believed in Jesus?
When we possess saving faith in Jesus, we are not saved by anything that we do, any action that we take, any good works that we perform… Remember the criminal on the cross next to Jesus? When he believed in Jesus he could do literally nothing to save himself!Yet he was genuinely saved.
But… if we have genuine saving faith in Christ, we will inevitably demonstrate our faith, live out our faith, bear witness to our faith… we will follow the example of these magi: we will abandon the broad and easy path that leads to destruction, and live our lives by “another way”—the way that leads to eternal life.
So let me ask: Are you now “walking with Jesus” by another way? What difference does following Jesus make in your life? Do people look at your life and see the difference Jesus makes?
Well… It started at 8:00 p.m. last night on TBS, 9:00 on TNT: the annual 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story, that classic holiday movie. If you haven’t seen it, it’ll be on for about eleven more hours!
Near the end of this movie, the nine-year-old protagonist, Ralphie, has finally had enough: he beats up a neighborhood bully who has been tormenting him and his friends for years. Ralphie’s little brother runs to his mom to tell him what’s going on. His mom intervenes to stop the fight, but it’s too late. She arrives in time to see her son pummeling the boy mercilessly and—worse, from Ralphie’s perspective—to overhear him cursing like a sailor as he does so.
We’ve already learned earlier in the movie that cursing even once is enough to earn a timeout with a bar of Lifebuoy soap in one’s mouth!
Ralphie and his little brother are terrified of the consequences of the fight… and the cursing… you know, when their father gets home: Some of us undoubtedly remember our mother’s words: “Wait until your father gets home!” Ralphie is going to get killed. That’s what they both think.
His mother, however, is filled with compassion. She takes him home, washes his face, consoles him, and puts him to bed so he can calm down before supper.
At supper, when his father asks about his day, Ralphie is shocked when his mother downplays the fight—and doesn’t mention the profanity!
“I slowly began to realize,” Ralphie said, in a voiceover, “I was not about to be destroyed. From then on things were different between me and my mother.”
From then on, Ralphie realized that his mother was not going to destroy him. He knew that compassion, mercy, and grace were going to win out over judgment, wrath, and death. He knew that his mother was on his side. And he knew that nothing he could do would separate him from his mother’s love.
And so it is with us. Our heavenly Father refused to let sin separate us from him for eternity. He refused to let us get what we deserved. He refused to let us suffer hell without intervening to save us. He loved us too much.
And God knew before the foundation of the world the price he would pay to save us—that God himself would come into the world at Christmas and eventually die on a cross. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
And now things are different between us and God. There is now no condemnation! If we’ll only receive the free gift that he’s offering us!