************ Sermon on Matthew 2:2-3 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 13, 2009
"Who Recognizes the Greatest Gift of Christmas?"
Amy has a nativity scene sitting on the counter in her office. It is a nativity scene like many other nativity scenes that we see at Christmastime. There is a stable. The baby Jesus is lying in a manger. You see Joseph and Mary. There are sheep and cattle. There are shepherds. And, there are three wisemen bearing gifts.
These kinds of displays take liberty with the text. Actually, I should say these kinds of scenes are not true to the text. In the Bible, the wisemen do NOT gather with the shepherds around the manger. NOR are the wisemen present a few hours after Jesus' birth. Scripture tells us the shepherds find Jesus "lying in the manger" (Lk 2:16) whereas the Magi find Jesus at a house (Mt 2:11). Also, Scripture tells us the shepherds see Jesus within a few hours of His birth whereas the wisemen visit Jesus after a couple of years of following the star. Furthermore, Matthew doesn't tells us the number of wisemen; we don't know if there were three or twelve. So, I watched tonight's program with interest – especially the part about the wisemen.
A So, then, who are the wisemen? Our text does not tell us much but it does tell us six important things: when, who, where, what, why, and a second more important why.
First, we are told the when. We are given a time frame. When do the wisemen appear? "After Jesus was born ... during the time of King Herod" (Mt 2:1). Herod reigned until 4 B.C. So, sometime before this. Matthew is reminding us that the birth of Jesus happened in history, that it can be dated by other real and actual and historical events. This is not a legend. Nor is it a hoax.
Thanks to computer programs like PhotoShop, you can pull all sorts of hoaxes today. We had Ruth's Aunt Ella over for Thanksgiving Day. She explained they couldn't get everyone together for a picture at a recent family funeral. Yet, the picture she showed us did have everyone together. A close examination revealed that the picture had been altered by PhotoShop to insert the missing person.Matthew roots the birth of Jesus and the coming of the Magi in a real historical event. In other words, this is not a hoax. This is not something you need to check out on Scopes.com (though, I understand doubts have now been raised about this website).
B Second, we are told the who. Who come to see Jesus? Matthew calls them "Magi" (Mt 2:1). The Greek term for "Magi" refers to a priestly caste of royal advisors who predicted the future through the interpretation of dreams, the use of magic, and the movement of stars and planets. This last point helps to explain their interest in the star.
C Third, we are told the where. The Magi come "from the east" (Mt 2:1) – east of Judea, that is. Persia, Babylon, and Arabia are all possible countries of origin. Babylon is the likeliest option since contact with its large Jewish community explains why the Magi come looking for a king in Jerusalem.
D Fourth, we are told the what. The Magi come looking for someone. They come looking for "the one who has been born king of the Jews" (Mt 2:2). Every Jew knew about God's promise to David of a future king:
(Ps 132:11) The LORD swore an oath to David, a sure oath that he will not revoke: "One of your own descendants I will place on your throne ..." (cf 2 Sam 7:12-16)
Furthermore, the title, "king of the Jews," has meaning. Lots and lots of meaning. Another title meaning the same thing and evoking the same emotion is "Messiah, Christ, Anointed One." The Magi were probably told about the promise of the Messiah but I am not sure if they understood what this title all means for the Jewish people. To put it in a nutshell, when the Messiah comes, God would make things right. With His mighty arm, God would free His people, just as He had in the Exodus; God would burst the chains of the Romans. The rich would no longer oppress the poor. The strong would not take advantage of the weak. The lame would walk. The blind would see. The deaf would hear. Deserts would be turned into gardens, swords into plow shares, enemies into friends. You get the idea. The Messiah's birth is good news, exciting news, the best news.
The Magi come looking for "the one who has been born king of the Jews." They come looking for the Messiah. Imagine their shock when no one in Jerusalem seems to know anything about this. The news of the Messiah's birth hasn't made the front page of the Jerusalem Gazette. It isn't the topic of conversation at the local coffee shop or bazaar. You would think the Messiah's birth would be marked with the declaration of a national holiday, a ticker-tape parade, and a special service and offering at the Temple. But there is none of this.
E Fifth, we are told the first why. The Magi come because they "saw his star in the east" (Mt 2:2). Why would a star send them to Jerusalem? Remember who was back in Babylon – a large community of Jews. This Jewish community told the Magi about the promise of a star which heralds the birth of a king:
(Num 24:17) A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.Hear the promise? The promise of a star? The promise of a scepter which means the promise of a king?
There is something astonishing about these Magi. They see a star. They consult with the Jews in Babylon. They realize the "king of the Jews" has been born. And, then, they follow the star. Across the desert. Even Abraham didn't follow such a route. Instead, Abraham followed the Euphrates northwest and then dropped down into the Promised Land. But not the Magi because stars travel in a straight path and don't take detours around deserts and mountains. How many months and years did this take them? We don't know. But the trip must have been hard and mind-numbing and body-wearying.
Are you astonished by these Magi? They are pagan priests, after all, priests of an idol. Yet, they endure all sorts of hardships, for all sorts of time, in order to find the "king of the Jews." But now a better question: Are you willing to be like them? What has it cost you to come to Jesus? Remember what Jesus said to His disciples?
(Mt 16:24) If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.Can we say that pagan priests suffered more to see Christ than do we?
F The sixth thing our text tells us about the Magi is a second reason why they have come. They are in Jerusalem not merely because they have followed the star of a new born king but also because they want "to worship him" (Mt 2:2). Now, remember, these are Magi, pagan priests. The Spirit of God has softened them, changed them, converted them, so that they want to worship at the feet of the new born king.
Three times in our Bible reading, Matthew chooses to use a word for "worship" that he uses other times in his Gospel to show the true worship of those who do truly believe in Jesus:
-the leper who wanted to be healed (Mt 8:2)
-Jairus who wanted his daughter brought back to life (Mt 9:18)
-the disciples in the boat after Jesus quieted the storm (Mt 14:33)
-the woman of Canaan who wanted her daughter saved from demon-possession (Mt 15:25)
-the mother of James and John asking that her sons be given a place of honor in Christ's kingdom (Mt 20:20)
And, as a sign of their true worship, look at the gifts that the Magi bring: gold, incense, myrrh. Interpreters throughout the ages have typically viewed the gifts symbolically: gold represents Jesus' royalty, incense symbolizes Jesus' deity, and myrrh points to our Lord's death. It is doubtful whether the Magi have such things in mind when they present their gifts. But God most certainly had something in mind. These gifts all have one thing in common: they are costly. By the providence of God, these gifts finance the upcoming flight to and stay in Egypt.
Which makes me ask, what do you give Him? The baby in the manger, what do you give Him? What can I give Him? As the song puts it, "Give Him my heart!"
Now, remember the intent of Matthew's Gospel – to convince Matthew's fellow Jews that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of Abraham, the Son of David. Any Jew knowing his Old Testament cannot but help think of a Messianic passage like Psalm 72 when he hears about the Magi:
(Ps 72:10) The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. (Cf Is 60:6)Hear what the psalmist says about kings and gifts and gold? Matthew is saying Messianic passages like this find fulfilment in the birth of Jesus.
II Herod and All Jerusalem
A The Magi are not the only characters in our Bible reading. Our text also identifies "King Herod" and "all Jerusalem."
King Herod is a confusing character in the Bible because there are six different King Herods:
1. Herod the Great, ruler over Judah at the time of Jesus' birth (Mt 2:1-20);
2. Herod Archelaus, oldest son of Herod the Great; king when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus left Egypt (Mt 2:22);
3. Herod Philip, another son of Herod the Great and first husband of Herodias, who left him for Antipas, his brother (Mt 14:3);
4. Herod Antipas, youngest son of Herod the Great and the king who killed John the Baptist (Mt 14:1-11);
5. Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, killed by an angel of the Lord for accepting the people's worship (Acts 12);
6. Herod Agrippa II, great-grandson of Herod the Great and the king Paul spoke to about becoming a Christian (Acts 25:13-26:32).
B I mentioned earlier what the Magi expected to find when they arrive in Jerusalem: a national holiday, a ticker-tape parade, and a special service and offering at the Temple. Instead, what do they find? We are told that King Herod "was disturbed" at their news.
"Disturbed." Not a nice word. The same Greek word is used when the disciples saw Jesus walking towards them on the water; at that time, they were terrified (Mt 14:26). We see the same word again when Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, has an encounter with an angel in the Temple; Zechariah was startled and gripped with fear (Lk 1:12). What was Herod's reaction to the news of the Messiah's birth? He was troubled, upset, stirred up, agitated, irritated, frightened, and terrified. The news of Jesus' birth triggered an intense negative emotional reaction.
Why? After all, Herod does have some Jewish blood flowing through his veins. You would think Herod would rejoice at the promised Messiah's birth. Instead, Herod is "disturbed" at the news that the king of the Jews has been born. Herod is disturbed because Herod claims for himself the title "king of the Jews." Which means two people are claiming the title. And, as everyone should know, you cannot have two people claiming the same title and throne. So, right then and there Herod made plans to kill this rival, this new born king.
C Did you notice who else is "disturbed"? Not just King Herod but also "all Jerusalem with him." Jerusalem. The capital city of Israel. The city and people who should most look forward to the Messiah's coming. They also are disturbed. They do not greet the Messiah's birth with joy. Instead, they are also dismayed, frightened, disturbed, and upset. Remember Chicago's reaction when Obama was elected? A million people showed up to celebrate. Yet, there is no celebration in Jerusalem. As John writes at the beginning of his Gospel, "He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him" (Jn 1:11).
Our children told us tonight about the greatest gift of Christmas. Our text makes clear that the Magi recognize this gift, whereas Herod and all Jerusalem do not. Gentiles recognize Him while His own people do NOT.
This is an often repeated theme in the Gospel of Matthew:
-Remember the centurion whose servant was paralyzed and in terrible suffering? He had faith that Jesus could heal his servant from a distance, without actually touching the servant. Remember Jesus' response? "I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith" (Mt 8:5-13).
-Jesus also praised the faith of a Canaanite woman whose daughter suffered from demon-possession (Mt 15:21-28).
-Think of Pilate's wife who declared Jesus to be innocent (Mt 27:19).
-Think of what was said by the Roman guards at the cross who witnessed Jesus' death; they said, "Surely he was the Son of God" (Mt 27:54).
-Think of the Parable of the Tenants; the original tenants mistreated the landowner's servants and son; so the vineyard is given to the care of others (Mt 21:33-46).
In each case the theme is the same: Gentiles recognize Him while His own people do NOT.
Now, I want you to think about the people of Israel. As Paul puts it,
(Rom 9:4-5) Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ. Yet, they reject Christ while Gentiles do not.
I think this highlights a danger that we face. We get so used to the treasure of salvation that it no longer moves us, excites us, or stirs us. We get so used to the treasure of salvation that it is business as usual rather than a ticker-tape parade. We get so used to the treasure of salvation that we cannot bother to worship Him.
We need to see the Christ-child with the eyes of the Magi. Like them, we need to recognize the greatest gift of Christmas. Like them, we need to come and worship.
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