Topical Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
In 1858 a scientific expedition passed through what we today call the Grand Canyon. A young lieutenant wrote in his report: “This region is altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the South, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. It shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.”
In 1863, when Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, a newspaper editor in Harrisburg wrote, “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”
Two thousand years ago a baby was born in a tiny town called Bethlehem. The next morning, anyone in the community would have agreed, “Nothing significant happened last night.” And yet the hinge of history is on the door of that Bethlehem stable. That one event changed the world forever. God became one of us, that we might become one with him.
So far in the Advent season we have found hope in the promise of heaven; peace in the fact that the Christ who changed Matthew can change us; joy in the knowledge that we are all welcome at the party; and love in obeying his perfect will as Joseph did.
We’ve shared Christmas with Matthew. Now let’s watch him end Christmas, and make the story our own. Yesterday we opened our Christmas presents. Now let’s give the Christ of Christmas his, today and until the first Christmas leads to the second. What does God want for Christmas this year? Why will the question matter to your soul all year long?
How did they find him?
Matthew alone tells us about the “Magi,” the Greek word for “wise men.” Let’s separate biblical facts from 20 centuries of tradition.
We typically put three wise men in our manger scenes, since they brought three kinds of gifts. But they usually traveled in groups of twelve or more for safety.
We have named them Melchior, an elderly man with a long, flowing beard; Casper, a young, clean-shaven man; and Balthasar, with a newly-grown, stubbly beard. But their names are found nowhere in Scripture.
Pilgrims claimed to have discovered their bones and relics in the fourth century. In 1162 they were supposedly moved to Cologne, Germany, where they are enshrined today. But no one really knows where they died and were buried.
In truth, the Magi were much more like us than any others in the Christmas story.
Like us, and unlike Mary and Joseph, they were Gentiles. They lived in Persia, the first foreigners invited to worship the Christ.
Like us, and unlike Mary and Joseph, they were people of means. In fact, they were so wealthy that they could afford to leave their homes for a journey lasting more than two years, and afford the finest gifts to give the Child.
Like us, and unlike the shepherds, they were well educated. In fact, they were the most learned people in their society–scholars in philosophy, medicine, and science.
Like us, and unlike the shepherds, they were religious men. In fact, they were leaders among the people of faith in ancient Persia, corresponding to the Levites in ancient Israel. No sacrifice could be made in their worship unless one of the Magi were present.
How did they know of the birth of the Christ?
The Jews had been enslaved in their country seven centuries earlier, and talked of a “Messiah” who would one day set all mankind free from sin and death.
That idea became even more popular in the years preceding Christmas. The Roman historian Suetonius wrote, “There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated for men coming from Judaea to rule the world.”
The Roman historian Tacitus said, “There was a firm persuasion that at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers coming from Judaea were to acquire universal empire.”
According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the Jews believed that “about that time one from their country should become governor of the inhabitable earth.”
The Jewish scriptures even told the Magi when the Messiah would come:
“A star will come out of Jacob, a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17).
And so, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:3).
“Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba [the Magi’s homeland] will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord” (v. 6).
So the scriptures foretold that a star would come to announce the birth of this Messiah and lead us to him. Then just such a star appeared before them, as we learned on Christmas Eve. The Scriptures said the King of the Jews would come; the scholars agreed; now the stars seemed to lend their assent. So the Wise Men set out on pilgrimage to find and worship him.
Why did they find him?
Their journey took longer than our manger scenes allow. Much longer, in fact.
To find the Christ, they had to travel for two years after his birth. This is why Matthew’s account says that they came to his “house,” not his manger, and found the “child,” not the “baby” (v. 11).
This is why murderous King Herod killed all the Jewish boys in the vicinity from two years old and under (v. 16).
They came first to Herod in Jerusalem, assuming he would know of the birth of the King of the Jews. He did not, but his scholars knew that the boy would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). And when they saw again the star which first announced his birth, leading them to his home, they were overjoyed (v. 10).
They brought him gifts prepared for just this moment.
Gold, for Persians never came before a king without it.
Frankincense, a cinnamon incense which priests used to cover the odor of burning sacrifices. A gift for a priest.
Myrrh, an anointing substance for embalming and burial, something used only for a sacrifice.
And with their gifts, the Magi were wise enough to give him their obedience.
They refused to tell Herod where they found the child, though he had the power to kill them.
They returned to their homeland and told there the story of this child Christ. There is a Christian movement in Persia to this day which traces itself to their witness there.
Have you found him?
If the Wise Men could visit us today, they might well ask, How wise are you? Are you wise enough to do what they did, to seek out and worship the Christ?
Some refuse the child like Herod, afraid he will interfere with their plans and dreams.
Some ignore him like the religious scribes and priests in Jerusalem. They refused to go with the Magi to find the Messiah, so busy with their own lives and work they made no time for him.
And some worship him as they did. For wise men still seek him.
Wise men still seek him as their Savior, their sacrifice. Wise men and women accept his death on the cross for their sins, and trust him for their salvation. As the Magi offered their myrrh, so wise men offer to him their faith in his sacrifice. Are you this wise?
Wise men still seek him as their Priest, every day. As the priest offered daily sacrifices, led daily rituals, met the people daily for worship, so you can meet him daily, now. You need not travel 500 miles across two years, for he is here, for you today. To be your priest, all day. To pray for you. To lead you into the presence of the Holy Father. To guide you into his Kingdom and service. As the Magi offered their incense, so wise men trust him to be their priest. Are you this wise?
Wise men still seek him as their King, with their best gold. They give to him their best gifts and abilities, possessions and time. Not just that which is convenient or habitual, but their very best to him as their King and Lord. As the Magi offered their gold, so wise men give to him their lives. Are you this wise?
Most of all, wise men give him their worship. Before the Magi opened their treasures, they first opened their hearts. They bowed and worshipped him. They gave him the gratitude of hearts filled with joy in his presence. So can we.
Wise men give to him their waking thoughts as they begin the day; they converse with him all through the day; and they offer him their waning moments at its end. They practice his presence, worshiping him consciously all through the day. As the Magi offered their worship, so wise men walk all day long in his presence. Are you this wise?
Wise men still seek him. Will you be a wise man, a wise woman today? There is only one thing in all of creation which this Child cannot take for himself, and that is your heart. This is the only thing you can give him which he does not already own. This you alone can give him. What he wants for Christmas is you.
Two hundred years ago, Charles IV was king of Spain.
Napoleon was coming. And so the king directed a servant to hide his priceless collection of antique clocks, and the crown jewels of the Spanish monarchy. The servant was instructed to bury the clocks in the wall of one of the 365 rooms of the royal palace, and the jewels in another room. The servant did as he was told, and cut a piece of cloth from the draperies of these two rooms to mark them, should the Spanish monarchy ever recover the throne.
In 1814, Charles’s son, Ferdinand VII, restored the throne to the Spanish royal family. The first thing he wanted to do was to find his crown jewels. But there was a problem. Napoleon had changed the draperies in every one of the rooms of the palace. The only way to find the jewels and the clocks was to tear out the walls of every room of the palace. Ferdinand decided he’d rather live without clocks and jewels than walls.
Everyone thought the story was just a European legend until a plumber working on some pipes in one of the palace rooms discovered the antique clock collection. Now all that remains is to find the only lost crown jewels of Europe. Imagine how exciting it will be one day for someone to discover the crown of a king.
This morning, the crown of the King of Kings is in your hands. You can place on his head, or yours. You can bow before him in worship and make him your King, your Priest, your Sacrifice. You can spend the coming year in his worship and service. The Magi had to leave the stable, but you don’t. Wise men still seek him.
How wise are you?