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Sermon blog: What have you given Jesus this Christmas?

December 22, 2015

  Matthew 2:1- 12 – a sermon for 27.12.15

How has your Christmas been?

A time of relaxation?

Peace on earth?

Good will to all men and in-laws?

Stuck in traffic?

Trapped in supermarket queues?

Or unable to move for relatives, presents and food?

Everything can be overwhelming.

Perhaps you have been to a nativity play to see children or grandchildren. Some schools still do them. And where they do it gets as crowded as Christmas.

Baby Jesus in the manger sleeps blissfully as angels play with donkeys and shepherds trip over wise men. Mary & Joseph’s space invaded by children dressed in tea towels, dressing gowns and old curtains. While the inn keeper looks on proudly.

In the attempt to get as much of the story in as possible, we end up with an overcrowded stable. And we can come away with wrong ideas of what it was like as a result.

Recently we were reminded that the accounts of Jesus’ family line are set out differently in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Different but complementary.

Matthew and Luke provide the source materials for our Christmas narrative. John provides the theology behind it all and Mark ignores Christmas altogether.

But Matthew and Luke tell us about different events within the story, without contradicting. Giving us different vantage points.

Luke starts in Nazareth with Gabriel coming to Mary. And then describes the need to visit Bethlehem to be taxed.

Matthew doesn’t tell us where it all starts, but does describe the miraculous nature of the birth. But then he tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Matthew doesn’t mention Nazareth until after Joseph, Mary and Jesus return from Egypt, when they decide to live in Nazareth for their own safety. It is almost as if Matthew is unaware that that is where they came from in the first place.

Luke tells us about the shepherds in the field. An unlikely choice for God to choose to hear the good news of a saviour born in Bethlehem before anyone else. Matthew does not record these events.

But he does give us another group of people who have been every bit as much part of our nativity scenes. A mysterious people indeed.

First let’s see what we think we know about them:

  1. They are the three wise men
  2. They are the three kings
  3. They are called Balthasar Melchior and Gaspar

Well that is actually 3 things we don’t know about them.

  1. There is nothing to say how many of them there are
  2. There is nothing to say they are wise men or kings
  3. They are not named

As people have tried to make sense of who these people are an awful lot of suggestions have been made. Which we have taken on board.

They sound more like some creatures from an episode of Doctor Who.

They are quite simply “the Magi”.

Visitors who came to worship Jesus.

Verse 1 of Matthew 2 mentions the main characters of this particular drama; Jesus, King Herod, and those Magi.

So what are these Magi?

It does not seem that they were royalty of any sort.

And what about wise men? Well not the sort of wisdom that you and I would probably count as wisdom. They studied the stars. But it seems that rather than being astronomers, these people were in fact astrologers.

If we are surprised that God should choose shepherds to hear about the birth of a King in Bethlehem, then we are probably even more so to think that God would choose to reveal himself to these people. There is good reason why most Christians don’t read their horoscopes.

But in these days we are reading about it was common for many to study the stars. To discover their fortunes. To look for meaning. It was not a means that you would expect God to speak through and yet on this one occasion that is exactly what he did.

To a people searching for something, anything, God spoke.

The way we tell the story 3 men and their camels turn up at the palace in Jerusalem asking to see the new king of the Jews. It would after all be a logical place to look for him. Actually there is no mention of the palace. But we are told about another king.

Did the Magi go straight to the palace? Were they directed there? Or did King Herod hear about their enquiries around the city and arrange a meeting?

We don’t know but meet they surely did.

And the Magi go straight to the heart of the matter.

“Where is the royal baby? Where is the one who is born to be King of the Jews?”

They go on to explain “We have seen his star in the East”. Matthew tells us only that these people are from the East. Possibly they were from Persia or Southern Arabia but they were certainly Gentiles. Foreigners. They probably had to travel a decent distance.

The stars are fascinating, the universe is immense. But can they really speak to us? The Bible warns us against such practices, but it seems that on this one occasion the Magi found more than they expected as they studied and drew their charts.

God broke in.

And they saw something huge.

But what did they see?

One theory is Halley’s comet. Another that ties in more closely with our dating is that there was a conjunction of two planets, Jupiter and Saturn in an area of the sky known as Pisces.

This happened three times in 7 BC, including once on my birthday! Jupiter was regarded as the royal planet. Saturn was seen as representing Israel. Pisces was thought to mark the end of the old and beginning of the new. A new king born in Israel?

Whatever it was they took it very seriously and travelled to see the new King and to worship him.

The words you can imagine would be quite unsettling for someone who was legally regarded as the king of the Jews. Herod owed his Kingship to Rome. This was Herod the Great, a non-Jew appointed King of Judea by the Roman occupiers. Herod took control of the country in 37 BC and died in 4 BC. Matthew puts the birth of Jesus firmly in Herod’s rain.

Which of course is odd when you think what BC stands for!

BEFORE Christ. So Jesus was born at least 4 years before himself. It is widely acknowledged that this is down to the miscalculation of a monk centuries later and a sign that BC and AD are only approximate. Too late to change our calendars now!

So we are confronted with 2 kings of the Jews. One who is to be known as the Prince of Peace and another who has achieved just about everything by violence.

Herod is acknowledged to have murdered a wife, three sons, mother-in-law, brother-in-law and uncle. And that was just those nearest and dearest to him. There were many more. And you think you have family problems at Christmas!

So perhaps we should not be surprised that Herod is disturbed. Like King Saul centuries before with David, perhaps he had visions of seeing the one who was to take his place on the throne. And he didn’t like it.

Interestingly Matthew describes widespread concern in Jerusalem. Not just for the King. There is no sense of anticipation and excitement.

Disturbed.

The King may or may not have known his Israelite history. He may or may not have been aware of their God. But whatever his level of knowledge, and I am sure he could not have been completely ignorant, he sought advice.

From the chief priests and the teachers of the law. These were the religious people who really did know their stuff. They knew the God of Israel. They knew His laws to the point of being obsessive. They knew the prophesies of a Messiah, a chosen one, a King in David’s line. And they were spot on with their answers.

Q “Where is this Christ to be born”.

A “Bethlehem”.

Got it in one. And they recite the words of Micah the prophet to back it up.

And with that the religious people disappear from the scene. In an extraordinary twist we hear no more about them. While Herod asks to be kept in touch with developments, surely the religious people who knew their prophecy, who were waiting for the Messiah, who longed for his deliverance and rule,  would be off like a shot, following the Magi up the road. Follow those camels!

But the religious people have no time for Jesus. No interest. That is a theme that we will become familiar with as we read the accounts of the life of Jesus, that the religious leaders not only completely missed him, they even came to regard him as Public Enemy Number One. As John put it “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him”.

What do you rely on this morning. Is it that you are religious? Is it that you go to church? Is it that you give to good causes? Is it that you know your Bible inside out and back to front?

Or is it that you know Jesus?

As your king.

As our shepherd.

Religion does not make us right with God. We cannot reach him.

He reaches down to us through Jesus. It is all about him and what he came to do for us.

You can be religious. Or on the other hand you can just sound religious and fool other people.

“Let me know when you find him. I’d love to come and worship this new king too” (Fingers firmly crossed behind back).

The Magi continued on their way. In some way, we cannot be sure how, they are led by the star. A star which stops over the place where the child was. God’s leading is clear.

God will lead us. Especially if we as attentive and determined as these Magi to seek their King with all their energies. The Magi surely were “wise men”.

God’s word encourages us to seek him. And that he will be found. Let’s not be half hearted in our search for him, whether we are looking to find him for the first time, or as we continue to seek him, to follow him more closely and become more like him.

They had travelled, they had sought guidance from man, but ultimately found their guidance from God. Not surprisingly, Matthew tells us, they were overjoyed as their journey reached its ultimate goal.

We are then confronted with more questions about these events, particularly their timing.

When did this happen? This is not made entirely clear to us but there are some clues.

Certainly there is no mention of the Magi having to ask the shepherds to kindly move to one side to enable them to get a better view of the baby!

So what information do we have?

Firstly, Mary & Joseph are still in Bethlehem. Remember they only went there to be taxed so we might have expected them to return to Nazareth as soon as they had done the necessary, and Mary and her baby were well enough to take what would have been at least a 3 day journey. After all, the accommodation was far from ideal! And we later know that Joseph was a carpenter. Did he not need to get back to hid business? Paternity leave would not be invented for another 2000 years!

Did they return to Nazareth even briefly? It may well be that they did not. Did they decide to stay in Bethlehem while they fulfilled the necessary religious rituals of circumcision after 8 days and sacrifice after 40? Did they decide to make a new life in this place?

2 things leap out. Whilst the shepherds saw a baby, the Magi saw a child. Some would say this is significant and that Jesus was quite a bit older by now. The shepherds and wise men probably never compared notes, or sang “Away in a manger” together.

And oh yes! That’s another thing. The shepherds came to a manger and the Magi came to a house. I’m not sure we’d be too surprised at that really. If there was no room at the inn, surely as people started to return to their homes after the census, Joseph would have sought out better accommodation fairly quickly. Surely a manger could only ever be regarded as a temporary arrangement! And of course if they had decided to settle…

Scholars will though tell us that Jesus could not have been more than 2. There is a big clue for that in the verses that follow today’s reading. We are probably all familiar with how the story unfolds. God makes it plain to the Magi that Herod is not what he makes himself out to be.

And in a most cruel further exhibition of his violent rule, Herod orders the slaughter of all boys under 2. So Jesus could not likely have been more than 2 years old. But who knows was Herod accurate in the information he received or did he just plump for a nice long period of time to make absolutely sure that this threat was removed from the scene. Of course he failed, but at what cost to the families of Bethlehem!

So we don’t know all the facts.

But what is important as always is what we do know.

These men from a distant land, of an unknown religion, with an ungodly occupation found who and what they were looking for and they worshipped.

This baby. Was he ever treated like any other baby? Did people ever pull faces and make funny noises in his face? Did they comment how much he looked like his mother or father?

Well no, normally they were praising God or prophesying, or like the Magi bowed in worship.

So I’m wondering again.

How was your Christmas?

Did you get everything you wanted?

And what gifts did you give?

Chocolates, socks, toiletries, hankies?

What did you give to the babies in your families? Toys, socks, clothes?

But most of all, what did you give to Jesus this Christmas? If Jesus is just an ordinary baby, who became an ordinary man, then you might as well give him socks and chocolate buttons.

But if you are like the Magi, if you are wise men and women your gifts will be much deeper.

3 gifts are described. That is the only thing we use to suggest their were 3 of these men. Again, matters not.

3 gifts:

  1. That’s a nice gift. Not a typical “baby’s first Christmas” present! But it is meaningful. It says something about this baby. It says that he is royalty. He is the King of the Jews.
  2. That’s not your ordinary toiletries. Incense. This is the stuff of worship. This baby is not just a king. He is God and is to be worshipped.
  3. The oddest gift to give to a young child. In a film version of the nativity the man who brings this gift hesitates and looks awkwardly as he offers this gift. It’s not nice. Myrrh is for anointing a dead body. This King who is God is going to die. Well of course he is. But really that is why he is come into the world. Not to die at the hands of Herod, but to gladly lay down his life for all mankind, Shepherds, Magi, religious people, you and me. That we can be fully alive and restored to our relationship with God.

So I ask again, what have you given to Jesus this Christmas?

He doesn’t want our gifts or our money – he wants YOU. Will you truly worship him this Christmas and in the days ahead?

 

“What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb.

If I were a wise man, I would do my part.

Yet what I can I give him, give MY HEART”

 

 

 

 

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