Sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Larry Maley at Dardenne Presbyterian Church, December 24, 2017, for the 9.00 am and 4.00 pm services
“The Gospel According to the Wise Men”
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12 and Isaiah 9:1-7
What began your journey to Jesus? What was that moment or person, the song or tragedy, which turned your life Christ-ward? For me, it occurred when I was fourteen years of age and singing in the choir at a Billy Graham crusade in Boston. After listening to Dr. Graham’s message, I felt moved to go forward and commit my life to Jesus Christ. Admittedly, I had little understanding what it meant to be a disciple of Christ – but my journey had begun. It has been a long, blessed journey.
My observation about people who decide to follow Christ is that they generally fall into one of three categories: (1) those who have heard about Jesus most of their life. Over the years, they have gradually deepened their understanding and commitment to following Him as Savior and Lord. Their decision to follow Christ involves a journey which takes years to finish. Most people sitting here have traveled down this path.
Then there are those (2) who get surprised by Jesus. Instantly their lives become completely, swiftly, radically altered. They belong to the dramatic conversion crowd. The shepherds in the field in Bethlehem belonged to this group. They weren’t expecting anything unusual the night Jesus was born. They were just trying to make it through the night by guarding their animals from would-be predators. Then, suddenly the sky lit up, an angelic choir broke forth, and incredible news announced, “For unto you, a Savior has been born; he is the Messiah. You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12). The glory of God, unsought, unexpected, suddenly surrounded them. They hadn’t been on a spiritual search. But when they heard the news about the Messiah, their heart was awakened. They spontaneously responded to that news, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened” (Lk. 2:15).
The third group of people who follow Jesus Christ are represented by the Magi in Matthew 2. They were not hoping to make it through the night. Instead, they were anxious for the night’s arrival, because at night they could study the stars. They were astrologers who believed celestial configurations foretold the future. They also studied sacred books to learn about prophecies. Magi traveled long distances in their quest to find the meaning of life. They had been spiritually hungry for a long time. One particular star had captured their attention for they believed it foretold the birth of a great Jewish king (Matt. 2:2). So they followed the night star which brought them to Jerusalem.
How many Magi were there? Church tradition says three because there were three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh (Mt. 2:11). But there might have been five gifts of myrrh, four gifts of frankincense and three gifts of gold. We really don’t know. In fact, the oldest tradition says that there were twelve wise men. We know they traveled hundreds of miles to see the baby Jesus, and they would have brought an elaborate entourage of camels and servants. They would have been quite a spectacle entering Jerusalem.
The other thing you should know about Magi is that they were thoroughly, completely pagan. The word Magi forms the root word magician. Their magic was not some pull a scarf out of your sleeve or a rabbit from a hat. Rather, they believed in the power of magic to influence people and their fate. These fellows were as pagan as pagans can get. But they had read the stars and Hebrew prophecy, and led to a premonition that God was up to something extraordinary. They traveled hundreds of miles at great expense and danger to discover this new truth. Something in their heart and mind said, “Let’s go find this new king the stars are predicting” (paraphrase 2:1-2). Ironically, the people least in possession of God’s truth were the most passionate in pursuing it.
What is curious about these Magi who journeyed to Jerusalem, is despite their legendary wisdom, they exhibited a profound naivety. Upon arriving in Jerusalem, they went around inquiring, “Where is your recently born king? We want to worship him” (v. 2). They foolishly thought the Jewish people who had long cherished the prophecy of a future Messiah would be as excited as them. How simple-minded of the Magi to think that people who knew about the truth were still interested in finding this truth. They forgot that sometimes people who know the truth, become arrogant, complacent and stop looking for it. The Jerusalem religious leaders were comfortable in their roles and had made their peace with King Herod. Absorbed by the pressure of their culture and caught up in the political intrigue of the day, they had lost their passion for the coming Messiah.
The underwhelming response of the Jewish religious leaders to the Magi’s report about the Messiah serves as a rebuke to me and every Christian who knows a lot about Jesus Christ. We can easily make the mistake that knowing a lot about Jesus is the same as worshipping Him. God doesn’t reward the knowledge in your head as He does the hunger in your heart. It’s good to possess the truth. But if you are not going to do anything with it; if you can’t be bothered to make the six-mile journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to see the fulfillment of God’s promise and humanity’s hope, it is better not to have that knowledge at all. Truly knowing Christ means kneeling down before Him (Psalm 95:6; Rev. 4:10-11) Wise men come to worship Jesus Christ(Matt. 2:2)!
Herod’s well-known reputation for cruelty and vindictiveness reveal another aspect of the Magi’s naivety. They should have anticipated Herod’s jealous response. Shortly after arriving in Jerusalem, news of the Magi’s inquiry reached King Herod’s ears. He immediately got angry, causing anxiety throughout all Jerusalem (v.3). Herod wouldn’t tolerate any usurper to his throne. He already had killed one of his wives, three sons, and numerous family members who he perceived as potential aspirants to his throne. Little wonder a popular saying declared that “It was preferable to be Herod’s pig than his son.”
Herod would tolerate no threat from some would-be Jewish Messiah. In fact, he too had been hunting for the Christ as diligently as the Magi, but for a different reason. He had a hunger in his heart, but it was not to worship the Christ. He intended to deal decisively with the Christ. Despite all his depravity, malice and paranoia, Herod understood you cannot be the king and permit Jesus be a king with you. It’s one or the other, so Herod was determined to destroy any rival.
After listening to the Magi’s request for information about the location of the Messiah’s birth (Mt. 2:4), Herod told them, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as your find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Mt. 2:8). Herod had a hunger in his heart, but it was not to worship Christ. His plan was to terminate this infant challenger; which he later attempted to accomplish by ordering all boys in Bethlehem under two years of age killed (Mt. 2:16).
Those of us sitting in church need to be on guard against a disease called “Herod’s heart” creeping into our life. “Wait a minute,” you respond, “There’s no way I’m like that scoundrel Herod!” Think twice before declaring your innocence.
Certainly, you don’t want to kill Jesus Christ. But is Jesus a threat to who rules your life? You cannot occupy the throne in your life and have Jesus ruling over it, as well. You cannot be the possessor of your property and have Jesus be the owner at the same time. One way or another we make it known to Jesus Christ, “You can rule as long as it’s okay with me. But don’t you dare encroach in any area that I’ve decided are my domain.”
I’m stunned by how much the disease of Herod’s heart infects American Churches. But then again, I am not, because I have some of Herod’s heart in me, too.
For all the negative things I’ve mentioned about Herod, he gives the best piece of advice in the story: “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Mt. 2:8).Herod may have been lying – but it’s actually advice everyone in this sanctuary should heed: “Go and make a careful search for Jesus Christ!”
- If you’re steeped in some confusing ideas about God – “Go and make a careful search for Jesus Christ!”
- If you are searching for truth, hope, or peace – “Go and make a careful search for Jesus Christ!”
- If you want to know what your future holds – “Go and make a careful search for Jesus Christ!
If it’s a six mile walk from your home to the place where Christ is at – GO!
If it’s a thousand mile journey from your home to where Christ is at – GO!
And when you find Him, worship Him, and tell others so they too will worship Him. He’s the One worthy of the long journey.
He’s the One who can satisfy your questions about life’s meaning.
He’s the One worthy of all the gifts you offer Him.
He’s the One that if the situation requires, you defy a king for His sake – which is what the Magi did (Mt. 2:12).
Because He is Christ the Lord! Unto you a Savior has been born. Unto you a King has been given. Amen.