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When you wish upon a star

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre died and went to heaven. God was showing him around, and they came to a modest little house with a faded Packers flag in the window. “This house is yours for eternity, Brett,” said God. “This is very special; not everyone gets a house up here.”

Brett felt special indeed, and walked up to his house. On his way up the porch, he noticed another house just around the corner. It was a three-story mansion with a blue and silver sidewalk, a 50 foot tall flagpole with an enormous Cowboys flag, and in every window, a blue star.

Brett looked at God and said, “God, I’m not trying to be ungrateful, but I have a question. I was the league’s all-time leader in pass completions and a Hall of Famer.” God said, “So what do you want to know, Brett?” “Well, why does Tony Romo get a better house than me?” God chuckled and said, “Brett, that’s not Tony Romo’s house. It’s mine.”

Whatever God’s house looks like in heaven, he changed locations dramatically when he came to earth. Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, chose to be born in a cow stall and to be laid in a feed trough. He chose field hands to be his first worshipers. He chose to be raised by peasant parents in a tiny, obscure village. But along the way, he did arrange for one very special set of visitors.

As we will see today, the Magi are more like us than anyone else in the Christmas story. What they did to find the hope and joy of Jesus is exactly what you and I must do today to find him this Christmas week. The next time you wonder if life makes sense, if the Lord is really in charge, if God knows what he’s doing, remember the Magi–and choose to be one. Let’s learn how.

Preparing the Magi

Nearly everything in our traditions about the Wise Men is wrong. We think there were three, since they brought three gifts, but they usually traveled in groups of 12 or more for safety. We call them kings, but they were actually priests and religious scholars.

Medieval legend says that Thomas went to Persia and won the Magi to Christ, and that they became evangelists. In the fourth century, pilgrims claimed to have discovered their bones. In 1162 they were supposedly moved to Cologne, Germany, where they are enshrined today. But none of this is really true.

Here’s what we do know about them. They were “from the east” (v. 1), the ancient civilization of Persia. They would be Iranians today. As Gentiles, they would never have been allowed into a Jewish worship service. They practiced magic and sorcery, skills forbidden by the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 18:14). They believed in two gods, breaking the First Commandment (Exodus 20:3). But by God’s grace, they became the first Gentiles in all the world to worship the Christ. Because they could come to Jesus, we can come to him.

They were the most learned people of their society, scholars in philosophy, medicine, and science. They were wealthy, of such independent means that they could leave their homes and families for a journey lasting more than two years, and afford the finest gifts for the Child when they found him.

Above all, they were religious men, much like the Levites of ancient Israel. In fact, no sacrifice could be made unless one of them was present. Their supreme god was Ahura Mazda, meaning “All-Wise Lord.” They believed that he dwells in eternal light, explaining why they would identify a star with a divine king.

Worship for Persians is an essential duty in venerating their creator. No animal sacrifices were made, but gifts were brought as offerings. Thus they brought gifts rather than sacrifices to Jesus.

They were waiting for a last Prophet or Savior to come. He would bring the resurrection of the dead, the general judgment of the entire world, the burning of the existing universe, and the eternal destruction of the evil spirits. All this they learned from their pagan religion.

The rest of the story came from the Jews.

Remember that the Jewish people had been enslaved in Babylon six centuries before Christ; more stayed than returned when the Persians liberated them. Jewish synagogues persisted in Persia through the first century to the present, so that as many as 30,000 Jews live in Iran today.

When they were exiled to the region, the Hebrews elevated their expectations of a Messiah who would liberate them. And so their teachings regarding a coming Messiah were known to the Persians, and especially interested the Magi.

They knew that a Messiah was coming, a Liberator who would be the King of the Jews. He would be part of the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:19), the line of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1) and the house of David (Jeremiah 23:5). And so he would reign in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah and the city of David.

To sum up, the Magi were waiting for a Savior to consummate history. They believed that a great Light would show us the way to him. When a star announced that the King of the Jews had been born, they set out for Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jews, on a journey which would change their history and ours.

God arranged all of this, beginning centuries before his Son entered the human race. When you wonder if he is the God of the nations, the Lord of the universe, the God of history and humanity, remember what he did over seven centuries to prepare the Magi for Christmas.

Bringing the Magi

Now watch what he did to bring them to Bethlehem. First, under his sovereignty, the Emperor issued an edict that all the world must be taxed. This edict forced Joseph to bring Mary and her unborn child from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

The Magi would never have looked for the King of the Jews in Nazareth, an obscure town in Galilee. At the same time, if Jesus had been born in Jerusalem, Herod could easily have found and murdered him. Bethlehem was close enough to Jerusalem, just the right place for the Magi to find the Messiah.

Then the star appeared, alerting the Magi that this King of the Jews had in fact been born. The first appearing of the star might have a natural explanation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the star did not actually lead the Magi to Jerusalem. They simply “saw his star in the east” announcing the birth of the King of the Jews, then came to the capital city of the Jews to worship their new king.

But there is no natural explanation for the star’s second appearance: “the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they were overjoyed” (vs. 9-10). No comet, planet, or star can do this. If one came close enough to Earth to point out a specific house, we would all be dead long before it arrived.

So God moved his people to Babylon/Persia so they could tell the Magi about the prophetic predictions that a King of the Jews would come. He used the Magi’s own religion to teach them that a Savior would come and a star would lead them to him. He then used Caesar Augustus, King Herod, and a miraculous star in the sky to bring them to Jerusalem and on to the child in Bethlehem.

Picture it: Magi from the east, at least 12 in number, traveling over 900 miles from Persia to Bethlehem. They’re riding on camel’s back, in flowing robes, with all the wealth and grandeur of their ancient culture. They wind their way through narrow stone and mud streets to a carpenter’s house in a tiny village, bowing before a two-year-old peasant boy.

When they come with their gifts, they show the world the Child they have found. Their gold is the gift of a king. Frankincense is a kind of incense used by priests in their rituals. Myrrh is an embalming fluid used for burial and sacrifice. They make him their king, their priest, and their sacrificial savior. All this because God has moved heaven and earth to bring the Magi to the Master.

Joining the Magi

The Magi are more like you and me than anyone else in the Christmas story. We are not shepherds, field hands at the lowest rung of Jewish society. We are not Jewish peasants from an obscure town in Galilee. We are Gentiles, people of means and education and religious commitment, come to Christmas from afar. We are the Magi.

Why do we need to join them this morning? Theirs is a story of divine sovereignty, a tale of God’s intervention in time and history, in the heavens and on earth. What does his sovereignty say to you today? Where do you need to know that he is in charge, on his throne, ruling the nations and guiding our lives?

What will happen next year to the economy? Will the subprime lending crisis get worse? What will happen in the Middle East and Iraq? Will Russia’s decision to sell uranium to Iran change the balance of nuclear proliferation? This time next year we’ll have elected a new president. What will happen to our nation?

Closer to home, what about the future concerns you in the present? What decisions and dilemmas are you facing? Where is 2008 worrying you this morning?

If God could move his people to Babylon six centuries before Christmas, so the Magi could read their prophetic promises about a coming King of the Jews; if he could use the Magi’s pagan religion to prepare them for the coming of his Son; if he could move Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to Bethlehem where they would be found by the Magi; if he could create a supernatural star to guide them to his house–what can’t he do for you? Where can’t he guide you?

What must you do to find and follow his sovereign will for your life and soul? Join the Magi.

Ask him to guide your future, and know that he will. Everything we know comes to us rationally, practically, or intuitively.

God spoke to the Magi in all three ways, as he still speaks to us today. Rationally, through reading his word and trusting its promises. Practically, through the stars and the circumstances of his creation which will guide your steps. Intuitively, as his Spirit speaks to your spirit, whether through dreams or internal connection and communion. Ask him to guide you each step of each day, and trust that he will–to your Jerusalem, then to Bethlehem, then back home, each in turn.

Make Jesus your king. Give him the gold of your obedience and surrender. Make him your priest. Give him the frankincense of your prayers and worship and devotion. Make him your sacrifice. Give him the myrrh of your faith and gratitude and trust.

Be a Wise Man, and you will find a King, a Priest and a Savior today. And his perfect will for tomorrow.

Conclusion

As I was writing this sermon last Thursday morning, I happened to glance out the window in my study and saw something I’ve not seen in my ten years in Dallas. A man was standing at the corner of Pickwick and Northwest Highway, trying to hitchhike. As cars sped by, he held out his thumb and tried to wave them down. I watched him stand there for several minutes, looking furtive and frustrated before he finally gave up and walked out of my sight. And I knew the feeling. I’ll bet you do as well.

There are days when it seems that everyone knows where they’re going but me. They’re driving by with purpose and direction, while I’m just hoping not to get run over. Life is traffic and chaos and brakes slamming and tires squealing and horns honking and people speeding every which way.

But in the midst of it all, there’s a God on his sovereign throne, waiting to guide the steps of those who will seek his will. There’s a Child waiting to be your King, your Priest, your Savior. There’s a star shining in the heavens for all wise enough to follow its light. Are you wise enough to join the Magi this morning?

“When You Wish Upon a Star” was introduced in the 1940 Walt Disney movie Pinocchio, where it was sung by Jiminy Cricket. The song won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year. In Sweden, Norway and Denmark, the song has become a Christmas song, referring to the Star of Bethlehem. Let’s hear it that way today, the way the Magi would have heard it so long ago:

When you wish upon a star

Makes no difference who you are

Anything your heart desires

Will come to you.

If your heart is in your dream

No request is too extreme

When you wish upon a star

As dreamers do

Like a bolt out of the blue

[God] steps in and sees you through

When you wish upon a star

Your dreams come true.

Are you so wise today?