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Matthew’s Gospel tells the story of a group of foreign stargazers called “Magi,” who traveled hundreds of miles from their homelands in the East following a bright star. A celestial phenomenon, that led them to a makeshift crib, called the manger, that bore the Christ-child in an obscure village called Bethlehem, just outside Israel’s capitol city of Jerusalem.[1] According to Luke’s version, Syria’s governor Quirinius had called for a census requiring relatives and former residents to return home in order to register with the Roman government. The census wasn’t so unusual, except that it would mark the beginning of an extraordinary historical period involving the Messiah, Jesus. The journey of the Magi would become so important in fact that many of us would grow up calling these star-gazers, “wise men” because at the end of their long journey they would worship Israel’s King Jesus. Like the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel, the Wise Men were an unexpected part of the Bible’s Christmas story that warms our hearts and challenges our minds.

 

Based on the three gifts of gold, frankincense and Myrrh, tradition says that the wise men—or “three kings”—were in attendance at the Savior’s birth. Legend says their names were Saphar, Melchoir and Balthasar. Truth be known, no one knows for sure how many Magi there were—much less what their names might have been—but it makes for good story-telling.[2] About all that can be said of these non-Jewish travelers was that they were mystics known for their study of the stars and their expertise in matters of spiritual topics.[3] But what made these magi “wise”—in terms of their historical reputation—wasn’t their knowledge of the stars or their expertise. What has compelled people down through the ages to call these travelers “wise men” is the fact that they followed the star to the very footstool of God’s earthly throne.

 

The Wise Men in Matthew’s story apparently knew something about the phenomenon they were following. As the Gospel explains in v.2, upon seeing “His star” they traveled to Israel in order to “worship Him.” Obviously, these guys had read enough Hebrew prophecy to be familiar with its ancient predictions of a child to be born in Israel. That he would be called, the “Meshe’ach,” a descendent of Abraham, of the royal family of King David. Certainly, Herod was aware of all this enough to disturb him and everyone around him. So—traveling a route not unlike that of Abraham and Sarah 2,000 years before, the Magi set out to discover the significance of this celestial sign in the heavens.

 

In your bulletins, I’ve outlined Matthew’s passage in three parts beginning with his explanation of the Magi’s journey; that they had “Come to Worship the King of Israel.” Anyone who reads this passage, would have to ask themselves, “What interest would these far eastern mystics have had in a Jewish born infant in Israel in the first place?” I know modern folks must think that Israel is a huge nation in the middle of a lush paradise of priceless natural resources. But the truth is, it’s actually an extremely small patch of rocky bottomland located between two deserts bordering water and sand. Israel is—and always has been—significant because of her God, not because of her land or her people. …And that’s who the Magi came to worship.

 

Second, Matthew’s quotation of the prophet Micah in v.6, says that the Messiah would actually come from the village of Bethlehem just outside Jerusalem. Verse 6 says, “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.” You couldn’t get much more geographically obscure than Bethlehem, and the idea of a shepherd-king was a little less than impressive in terms of contemporary political power and position. In ancient times, kings were royalty, not sheepherders; and to suggest that Israel’s Messiah would labor in a field, watching sheep would have been dismissed as ridiculous.

 

Then third, Matthew says in v.10 that the Wise Men, upon seeing the star, were “Overjoyed.” What the Greek literally says is “they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” In other words, this was no mere local religious event it was the nativity of the Creator’s Savior-Messiah.

 

“We’ve Come to Worship”

Matthew says in vv.1&2 that the wise men came to Jerusalem in search of the “king of the Jews.” It wasn’t unusual in Jesus’ day for serious students of the stars to follow peculiar astral portents, believing that such cosmic oddities marked significant events.[4] Things haven’t changed much in our day either, as contemporary news is seldom lacking for UFO sightings and late night tales of alien abductions of the weird kind. Ancient mythology is replete with references to supernatural births such as that of Zeus and Zoroaster, born under fabled conditions accompanied by extra-terrestrial signals in the heavens.[5] However, Jesus’ birth was something altogether different from the usual myth and legend that comes from men’s fertile imaginations. Unlike most ancient stories originating among society’s cultural elites, Jesus’ birth had been predicted by OT prophets and kept alive by the testimonies of ordinary people.[6]

One of my favorite Christmas Carols was written in 1847 by a French wine merchant, and put to music by a fellow countryman, called “O Holy Night.”

“O holy night,” says the first verse, “the stars are brightly shining;”

It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!

Long lay the world, in sin and error pining,

Till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.

Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices!

O night divine, O night when Christ was born!

 

Our life’s journey is filled with fearful uncertainties that test our willingness to believe in something beyond our ordinary senses. Similar to the Magi in Matthew’s story, our lives are an extraordinary journey beyond the comforts of cultural homelands because we too see a sign in the heavens and we want to follow. But just as the Magi must not have been certain about what the star meant or where it would lead, we continue in the faith that God is the source of our journey. What made these Gentile pilgrims “wise men,” wasn’t the fact that they set out on the journey, or that they followed the star from the east. What made the Magi “wise men” was the fact that they fell on their knees and worshiped the promised King when they got there.

 

Famed American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with having said, “Life is a journey not a destination.” And while such a statement sounds good, and may even give some folks a sense of spiritual empowerment, the fact is, it’s wrong. Life’s final destination, the journey, is what determines whether the trip was worthwhile or not. The biblical difference between a man or a woman and a wise man or wise woman is where their journey ultimately leads, not just the journey itself.

 

 

“He Will Shepherd God’s People”  

Once the wise men had seen the star, they began to track it toward Israel. Matthew says they traveled to Jerusalem, and that would make sense, since Jerusalem was the capital city. However, when they got there they were directed to go just a little further to the tiny village of Bethlehem. Again, the importance of where they were going would turn out to be much more important than the journey itself. Likewise, if our destination doesn’t lead us to something beyond mortal death, then what purpose could this journey we call “life” possibly hold?

Recently, Cuba’s infamous tyrant, Fidel Castro died, and various heads of state have rushed to offer their condolences as though he was something more than a murderous bully and a political devil. The truth is—and history will eventually expose it—Castro was a mean and bitter man who lived for himself as though there were no God or eternity. I’m sorry, but I’m not buying into the Nihlistic bull that’s being sold by today’s Darwinian skeptics, that’s motivated a sheep-like belief in the irrational notion that life amounts to little more than “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” This is the kind of half-hearted thinking that inspires people to sit around and talk about what a “swell person so and so was” when in fact they were devils, will have hell to pay for a life lived without faith in God! Is anyone really expected to reasonably believe that unconscious sleep is a destination worth investing your life’s journey preparing for?

 

In Lewis Carroll’s classic, Alice in Wonderland, Alice comes to a fork in the road that forces her to decide where she’s going. Standing at the divide, she looks up at a Cheshire cat in a nearby tree and asks him which way he thinks she ought to go. The cat grins and says, “Well first tell me where you’re headed.” Then Alice says, “Well, I’m not headed anywhere in particular.” The cat grins from ear-to-ear and says; “then it doesn’t matter which way you go.” –then he disappears.

 

If the Magi in Matthew’s story teach us nothing else, it’s that we ought to be more concerned about is where we’re headed than about how we’re going to get there. Wondering around aimlessly in a fog of naïve mortal fantasies and entertaining worldly diversions in this life, won’t get you anywhere but lost and confused in the end. Until Alice figured out where she was headed; where she went really didn’t matter.

Here’s the truth in all of this:

If we have no particular place to go in this life, then it really doesn’t matter what direction we’re headed—and since there’s plenty of Mad-Hatter tea parties to distract us along the way, or a game of hearts in the queen’s palace to keep us entertained, then getting somewhere isn’t all that important.

And that explains why some people, Castro included, waste their lives living for themselves. Fortunately, the Christmas story serves as a bright and shining light to remind us that the destination is equal too—and more important—than the journey itself. So, I’ll ask you a very “churchy” question: “Where are you headed this morning?”

 

Matthew tells us in v.1 that the king of Judea at the time was a notoriously wicked dictator named Herod. Josephus, a Jewish-born historian who lived around the time of Christ, described Herod as a cruel and ruthless politician who hated himself almost as much as he hated everyone around him. “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son,” said Caesar Augustus. Having more bronze than brains, when word got out that Eastern mystics were in town looking for the Jewish heir to King David’s throne, Herod called them into his palace. Matthew—betraying Herod’s sinister motives—points out in v.8 that he wasn’t interested in worshiping the Messiah, as he told everyone—he was determined to snuff out any potential competitors for his throne. Verse 3, says that when Herod heard about the Magi’s search for the Messiah, “He was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”[7] So, he ordered the Wise Men to report to him as soon as they found the Messiah-child under the false pretense that he too would go and worship Him.”

 

In v.9, Matthew tells us that the star led the wise men about two-hour’s ride southwest to Bethlehem “where the child was.” Verse 10, in Peterson’s The Message, reads; “They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!” There must have been a million distractions along the way, but the Wise Men stayed the course and saw for themselves where the sign from God had led them. Their search had brought them into the presence of the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, [and] Prince of Peace.”

 

“They Were Overjoyed!”

 The discovery of the Wise Men was that God had kept His promise to send Israel a king: A king even greater than David or Solomon. They had come to realize, by way of their extended journey, that life’s greatest gift—its “ultimate destination”—wasn’t death: It was the worship of Jesus Christ. Verse 11 says that, “upon coming to the house, they saw the child with His mother Mary and they bowed down and worshiped Him.”

 

Life’s ultimate destination isn’t a peaceful nap, or the hope of coming back in another life as Shirley McLain’s publisher. Life’s ultimate destination is the worship of Jesus Christ in whose resurrection we’re promised eternal life with God in heaven. Despite those who ridicule and reason-away the truth of our Bible’s Christmas story; the Gospels can’t be seriously read without concluding that He was the “Immanuel; meaning God with us.” I realize that the theological leap from accepting Jesus as a great teacher and miracle worker, to that of being God in the flesh isn’t an easy gap for the human mind to span. But if we’re going to believe Scripture’s account of Christmas, we must come to terms with the fact that those who witnessed these events—the Apostles, Mary, Martha, Luke and John—did in fact believe that Jesus was indeed “the Son of God.”

 

If you’re anything like me, then you know what its like to get up from a cozy comfortable chair and walk into another room only to forget what you got up to do. From the womb to the tomb, we walk, ride, run, and drive, trying to get where we think we’re supposed to be going. But when we get there we’re not always sure why we’ve arrived. After bestowing their royal gifts upon the Christ-child as a worship offering, Matthew tells us that the Wise Men returned to their homeland without reporting back to Herod as the king had instructed them back in v.8.

Wisely, their fear of God was greater than their fear of Judah’s insanely jealous monarch.[8]

 

Outside a small church in San Francisco a sign acknowledging the various cultural celebrations of the holiday season read:

“To our Christian friends,” read the sign, ‘Merry Christmas!’”

“To our Jewish friends, ‘Happy Chanukah!’”

“To our African-American friends, ‘Happy Kwanza’”

“And to our Atheist friends, ‘Good luck!’”

I’d like to close this Christmas sermon by reading the last stanza of Charles Wesley’s familiar carol, Hark The Herald Angels Sing:

“Hail the heaven born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of righteousness!

Light and life to all He brings, Risen with healing in His wings.

Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die,

Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.

Hark! the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King.’”[9]

________________

 

[1] Note also that elsewhere in the NT Jesus is referred to as the rising star (cf. Luke 1:78; 2 Pet 1:19; Rev 22:16).

[2] WBC The fact that these OT parallels refer to kings offering gifts is responsible for the later idea that the magi were themselves kings.

[3] “Magi” (μάγοι) has four general meanings according to G. Delling (TDNT 4:356–58): (1) members of a Persian priestly class; (2) possessors of supernatural knowledge and power; (3) magician; and (4) deceiver or seducer.

[4] Cf., NAC P.62.

[5] Cf., Dio Cassius Roman History 63.7: Suetonius, Nero 13.

[6] Actually the idea of a star accompanying the birth of the Hebrew Messiah goes all the way back to Balaam’s peculiar prophecy in the book of Numbers chapter 24. It seems that the controversial prophet, who you may recall had a talking donkey, predicted in Numbers 24:17 “I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” What the prophet “had seen but not now” and “beheld but not near,” was the birth of Mary’s son, Jesus and that’s who the wise men had found lying in a manger when they arrived in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. They had been searching for a “star coming out of Jacob” and what they saw was a king’s “scepter rise out of Israel.” These Far Eastern astrologers had seen God’s sign in the heavens and traveled hundreds of miles to discover something that Matthew says “brought them to their knees in worship.”            

[7] WBC Later, the whole city is “shaken” (or “disturbed) by Jesus’ triumphal entry (21:10).

[8] WBC Already in this passage we see a motif that occurs throughout the Gospel: the presence of the messianic king demands decision and therefore causes division between those who accept and those who reject him.

[9] Ibid