I once heard a radio interview discussing the giving and receiving at gifts at Christmas. They asked questions like, “What do you do if you give someone an expensive gift and they give you a cheap one?” How do you feel if you have given a cheap gift and that person has given you an expensive gift?” “Do you ever feel obligated to give a gift?” “How do you respond to a gift that you really don’t want or need?” Another question we could ask is, “How do we respond to God’s great gift which was given to us at Christmas?”
Although we often make it appear as if the story of the wise men happened at the same time as the birth of Christ, by portraying the Magi worshiping the Christ child at the manger, the truth is that likely this event took place much later. We notice from the text that Mary and Joseph were not living in a stable but in a house, as we read in verse 11. After inquiring of the magi when the star had appeared, Herod killed all the boys two years old or younger. Many suggest that this means that the story of the Magi may have taken place when he was perhaps close to two years old. They suggest that Joseph had taken up residence in Bethlehem. Even though this is so, historically and in its themes, the story of the Magi belongs to the Christmas story.
This morning, we will look at this story because it helps us to think about our response to Jesus and encourages us to make sure that worshipping Jesus is a part of our Christmas celebrations.
In this story, the first response to Jesus which we encounter is that of Herod. Have you ever had someone refuse a gift because of a broken relationship? Sometimes if people are angry enough at someone, if that person gives them a gift, they may actually refuse the gift. The response of Herod to the gift of God was to refuse it.
Herod had been appointed king of Judea many years previously. He was a good administrator and had done many good things for the country including building a temple. But he was also insanely jealous of his position as king. He even killed his own wife and others of his family including two of his sons to preserve his place on the throne. And so it was in character when Herod found out about the birth of the king of the Jews that he was greatly disturbed. In fact, he was filled with jealousy and suspicion. He began immediately to plot how to kill him. The coming of Jesus did not trigger a worship response, but rather rejection.
Does the message of Jesus ever cause you to respond with anger instead of worship? Today there are also many who hate Jesus and oppose him. How sad that some will reject, in anger, the greatest gift ever given. There has been a debate this year about how we greet one another at Christmas. Walmart and several other major retail chains have told their employees to say “happy holiday” instead of “Merry Christmas.” This has caused a furor among some people. I read some articles about this debate and one interview was very interesting.
O’REILLY - The bottom line on this is 30 years ago in this country, unheard of. We would not be having this conversation.
SMITH: Absolutely right.
O'REILLY: Every store in the United States was going "Merry Christmas," "Happy Holidays" "Happy Hanukkah. We hope everybody's happy. Now there is an anti-Christian bias in this country.
SMITH: Yes, there is.
O'REILLY: And it is more on display in Christmas season than any other time.
Not everyone who says “happy holidays” does so for this reason, but at least among some people, the reason for this debate is a rejection of Christ. People want nothing to do with Jesus. They wish to do what they like and Christ will not let them, so they kill him. We find it hard to understand, but there are those who hate God so much that given the opportunity they would kill him again, even though they know who he is.
Some then and some today reject the gift God has given. How sad to reject such a great gift!
A second response to God's gift which we notice in this story is the response of the Jewish leaders. Theirs was a response of indifference. It is possible that Messiah had already lived among them for as much as two years. They'd had the opportunity to recognize and accept him. Those who were looking for him had already met him. The shepherds had met and acknowledged God’s gift and had made known his birth. Even in the temple, he had been received by Simeon and Anna.
But the chief priests and teachers did not seem to care. They were very scholarly in their response to the question Herod put to them. They replied, "He will be born in Bethlehem." But it all seems rather academic. These religious leaders and scholars were so engrossed in temple ritual and legal discussion that they completely disregarded Jesus. They knew the Scriptures, they knew all about the coming of Messiah, they could answer all the questions. What the Magi had only in a glimpse, they knew in detail. In spite of such knowledge, it seems that their response was apathy. They did not care at all about Jesus’ birth or the coming of Messiah.
I received the following email the other day from one of the ministers in the Morris area. It went like this:
“As you well know, we are getting closer to my birthday. Every year there is a celebration in my honour and I think that this year the celebration will be repeated. During this time there are many people shopping for gifts, there are many radio announcements, TV commercials, and in every part of the world everyone is talking that my birthday is getting closer and closer. It is really very nice to know, that at least once a year, some people think of me. As you know, the celebration of my birthday began many years ago. At first people seemed to understand and be thankful for all that I did for them, but in these times, no one seems to know the reason for the celebration. Family and friends get together and have a lot of fun, but they don't know the meaning of the celebration. I remember that last year there was a great feast in my honour. The dinner table was full of delicious foods, pastries, fruits, assorted nuts and chocolates. The decorations were exquisite and there were many, many beautifully wrapped gifts. But, do you want to know something? I wasn't invited. I was the guest of honour and they didn't remember to send me an invitation. The party was for me, but when that great day came, I was left outside, they closed the door in my face, even though I wanted to be with them and share their table.
Since I wasn't invited, I decided to enter the party without making any noise. I went in and stood in a corner. They were having a grand time. To top it all, this big fat man all dressed in red wearing a long white beard entered the room yelling Ho-Ho-Ho! He sat on the sofa and all the children ran to him, saying: "Santa Claus, Santa Claus" as if the party were in his honour! At midnight all the people began to hug each other; I extended my arms waiting for someone to hug me and do you know no one hugged me. Suddenly they all began to share gifts. They opened them one by one with great expectation. When all had been opened, I looked to see if, maybe, there was one for me. What would you feel if on your birthday everybody shared gifts and you did not get one? I then understood that I was unwanted at that party and quietly left.”
Don't let apathy prevent you from worshiping Jesus!
The third response we see in this passage is that of the magi. Who were these men? Most suggest that they were philosophers and astrologers of the Median race from the land of Persia. There was a school of astrology in Saphar, Persia and they may well have come from there.
What moved them to make the long journey to the land of Judah? The Bible says in vs. 2, "We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." It is interesting to speculate how they discerned that the star told them of a king born in Israel? It seems to me that the most reasonable explanation is that God used astrology to speak to these people. They understood the language of the stars and God spoke to them in their language. Through the star, they understood that a king had been born among the Jews. That little knowledge was enough to trigger a response to come and find him. Not only did they make the long journey, they were also moved to give expensive gifts and the text says that they came to worship him.
In contrast to both Herod and the religious leaders, the Magi were moved to find Jesus and worship. As we look at their response, we are encouraged to respond in a similar way. Let us think about their response for a moment.
The purpose of their visit was very clear. They came to worship Jesus.
They had followed the star from the eastern lands. When they arrived in Jerusalem, the capital of the Judean region, they inquired of the religious leaders and when they finally found the place where Jesus was, the Bible says that they were very happy. The Greek says that they rejoiced with exceeding joy. They had found the object of their long journey and they worshipped Him. What a great lesson for all of us. Do we make such an effort to seek Jesus? Are we moved to go out of our way to worship Him? As the letter I mentioned a moment ago suggests, we may worship at the altar of getting or parties instead of Jesus. The word Christmas means Christ mass. It is the worship of Christ. The celebration is about Jesus and we have come to worship Him.
Do we focus on Jesus? Do we worship Him because He is the king, because He left the glories of heaven in order to come to this earth. Do we worship Him because he lived a pure and sinless life. Do we worship Him because He is the Son of God who became a man? Do we worship Him because He is fully divine? Do we worship Him because He gave his life in order to give us life? Do we worship Him because he is the living God who gives life? Do we worship Him because He sits enthroned in the heavens? Do we worship Him because He is the judge of all the earth? Do we worship the Son of God who became a man and now sits as Lord of all? This Christmas, let us make sure our focus is centered on Jesus and let us worship Him.
The magi came and found Jesus and worshiped Him. In worship we notice that the text says that they bowed down. True worship is not only a mental activity, it is about bowing down.
In days when kings ruled the earth, bowing before a king meant absolute obedience to him. The fact was that people had no choice. But just think of what it meant for these magi to bow before Jesus. They may have been kings and they were certainly respectable and honorable men. They were great men by earth's standards. Even so, they recognized in Jesus someone greater, someone before whom it was appropriate to bow down.
When we come to worship Jesus, we also must come bowing down. To do so means to recognize that He is Lord. Often I am willing to submit to His lordship as long as it suits me. Worship means bowing down to Him in all things.
The text further says that “they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.” Worshipping Jesus also means giving Him gifts.
The gifts given by them to Jesus were valuable gifts. Gold, then and now, was the standard of a precious metal. Frankincense was ounce for ounce as valuable as the finest gold and myrrh was the precious ointment of burial. As we respond to the gift God has given, we also must give Jesus the most valuable gift possible.
We may say that we are a little short of gold, frankincense and myrrh this year, but there is a gift each person can give which is much more valuable than gold frankincense or myrrh.
In the Daily Bread, a few years ago, there was a story of a little girl who was shaking the presents and trying to find out what was inside. She then took a bow and put it on her head and said, "look daddy, I'm a present." The writer suggested that that is a good picture for us. Do we say to our heavenly Father, "Here Father, I'm a present to you."?
The other thing about the gifts was that they were practical gifts. Mary and Joseph were able to use them on their journey to Egypt and back. By selling and trading the gold etc. Joseph could put food on the table, have fare for the journey and set up shop in Nazareth when he returned. Without the gifts, they would have been too poor to make the necessary trip. The gifts of the Magi to Jesus were not put under glass in a museum, but were used.
When we give ourselves to God we also must give a practical gift. What is the gift God needs today?
Jesus said, "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." Matthew 25:35,36.
There is a poem which called “How The Great Guest Came” which helps us think about this verse and what it means to give practical gifts to Jesus.
Before the cathedral in grandeur rose,
at Ingleburg where the Danube goes,
Before its forest of silver spires,
went airily up to the clouds and fires,
Before the oak had ready a beam,
while yet the arch was stone and seam,
At the place where the altar was later laid
Conrad the cobbler plied his trade.
Doubled all day at his busy bench,
hard at his cobbling for master and hench,
he pounded away at a brisk rap tap,
shearing and shaping with tole and tat.
Hide well hammered, pegs sent home,
till the shoe was fit for the prince of Rome.
And he sang as the threads went to and fro,
"Whether tis hidden or whether it show,
let the work be sound, for the Lord will know."
It happened one day at the years white end,
two neighbours called on their old time friend
and they found the shop, so meagre and mean,
made gay with a hundred bows of green.
Conrad was stitching with face a-shine
but suddenly stopped as he twitched a twine.
"Old friends, good news! At dawn today,
as the cocks were scarring the night away,
the Lord appeared in a dream to me
and said, `I am coming your guest to be.'
So I've been busy with feet astir
strewing the floor with branches of fir.
The wall is washed and the shelf is shined
over the rafter the holly twined.
He comes today! The table is spread
with milk and honey and wheat and bread."
His friends went home and his face grew still,
as he watched for the shadow across the sill.
He lived all the moments o'er and o'er,
when the Lord should enter the lowly door-
the knock, the call, the latch pulled up,
the lighted face, the offered cup.
He would wash the feet where the spikes had been,
He would kiss the hands where the nails went in,
and then at the last would sit with him
and would break the bread as the day grew dim.
While the cobbler mused there passed his pane
a beggar, drenched by the driving rain.
He called him in from the stony street
and gave him shoes for his bruised feet.
The beggar went and there came a crone
her face was wrinkled with sorrows sown.
A bundle of branches bowed her back,
and she was spent with the wrench and rack.
He gave her his loaf and steadied her load
as she took her way on the weary road.
Then to his door came a little child
lost and afraid in the world so wild.
Catching it up,
he gave it the milk in the waiting cup
and led it home to its mothers arms,
out of reach of the world's alarms.
The day went down in the crimson west
and with it all hope of the blessed guest.
And Conrad sighed as the world turned grey,
"Why is it Lord that your feet delay,
did you forget that this was the day?"
Then soft in the silence, a voice he heard,
"Lift up your heart, for I kept my word
Three times I came to your friendly door,
Three times my shadow was on your floor,
I was the beggar with the bruised feet,
I was the woman you gave to eat,
I was the child on the homeless street.
Every gift requires a response. It is rude to receive a gift and say nothing to the one who has given it. Just as we would think it rather poor form to reject a gift or to look at it with indifference, so it is not only bad form, but tragic that some treat the gift of God in this way.
The story of the Magi invites us to worship. Like the wise men, our worship must focus on Jesus and like the wise men, worship means submitting and giving. Jesus has come, let us worship Christ our Lord!