Our annual Christmas service. We’ve put together small vignettes to express the wonder of welcoming the baby Jesus into the world.
We are bringing our Christmas series, Faith Like A Child, to an end as we continue to explore the idea of what it might look like for us to be childlike in our journey with God. This weekend, we’re going to look at an account that definitely speaks to the coming of Christ. It’s about a year or so removed from His birth. It’s commonly associated with His birth, but it’s a year or so removed. We’re going to see two different ways of responding to Him. We will see a stark contrast here. I’m hoping we’ll be able to receive it as something of a model for us. A posture for us to be able to take into the new year. The passage is in Matthew 2. In verse one we’re told that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time, some Wise Men from Eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw His star as it rose, and we have come to worship Him.” King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem.
From the very beginning, Matthew sets the table for us in such a way that he assumes his readers understand the dynamics at play here. He introduces us to the town Bethlehem, in the region of Judea. Judea is in modern-day Israel. It’s in the Southern region of Israel. The other city, Jerusalem, is widely known. Many throughout the world understand what we speak of when we speak of Jerusalem. It speaks about this group of men, the Wise Men. Oftentimes, historically referred to as three Wise Men, but as you can see the actual account doesn’t enumerate how many people there were. We don’t know. A long time ago, people settled on the idea of three Wise Men because there were three distinctly different types of gifts. That being said, there was also another character Matthew introduces us to. It is this man, King Herod.
The Wise Men traveled from the Eastern land. In modern-day, we would say was the Arabic region of the world. We know that region of the world had a thorough understanding of celestial maps. They understood stars and weren’t in any way superstitious. There was real science attributed to the Egyptians. There was an understanding that people who were from this region, especially these Wise Men, were an educated class. They were of royal stature and had of an intellect caliber to be able to know the stars. They had discerned, according to what they understood, that this was a time in history unlike any other.
The child was born that was promised long ago. The Wise Med draw near to the capital of Israel, Jerusalem. King Herod was not any other king. He was a king unlike any Israel had ever known because he was a king that was installed by Rome. I know this is a lot of history, but it’s good for us to understand this. When Rome conquered Israel, they renamed it Palestine. This is why oftentimes today, the country of Israel is referred to as Palestine. Rome installed King Herod to make sure that this region of the world would remain loyal to them. The way Herod carried out his authority was brutal in nature. It was very dark. Many historians have written about him in many ways. One of the historians wrote a book called The First Days of Jesus. It gives us a snapshot of the kind of man King Herod was. I thought I’d share this with you, just for us to be able to understand the dynamics at play here.
We’re told that Herod had 10 wives and many children. It was not uncommon for that day. People of royalty had means. The authors say, the palace intrigue was thick throughout Herod’s reign because it included plots, assassination attempts, deception, and treachery from almost everyone around him. Over the years, this led to the execution of his wife and three of his sons. Among many other relatives and conspirators, Herod lived among people he could not trust. He regularly feared for his life and throne. The uncertainty of upheaval led Herod to make six different wills. Think about that. He changed wills based upon whom he thought he could trust and ultimately, which son had recently plotted to kill him. This is Herod. It’s the picture of a man who is sitting on a throne, in control, and power. Yet a man who is more insecure than any other in the land. His insecurity causes him to have deep paranoia.
Paranoia kept him guarded and ends up causing him to do some amazingly awful things. He stops at nothing to protect his territory. We understand this man is used to having power and his life put in danger by those closest to him. Herod was not going to be happy about the news the Wise Men brought. These Wise Men drew near, filled with their knowledge and intellect and they understood what was happening at the time. They say, “Hey, there is a child born in your land who is promised to be king. Where was he born?” The news that the Wise Men consider good news, ends up causing Herod to be deeply disturbed. So was everyone else in Jerusalem because Herod’s disturbance often meant havoc for everyone else. The leadership in Jerusalem was wondering how will Herod respond? There is a newborn threat in his midst. Matthew tells us in verse four.
“He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and he asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?” “In Bethlehem. In Judea,” they said. For, this is what the prophet wrote.” The prophet they were referring to was a minor prophet in the older Testament, a man named Micah. He wrote, “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not least among the ruling cities of Judah. For a ruler will come from you who will be the shepherd for my people, Israel.” Essentially, he calls together a council. King Herod didn’t understand religious things too well. He brought the scholars near him who thoroughly understood the scriptures. Herod asked the simple question, “Where is the Messiah? The promised one from God supposed to be born?” They tell him, “Oh, clearly in Bethlehem.” That’s the town where he will send him.
Herod now understands. He puts two and two together. The Wise Men are referring to this Messiah. The scholars let him know where the town is. This tells us that Herod completely understood the nature of the child and the time he was in. He knew, yes, indeed. God’s hand was on this. That’s what we’re led to believe, which means that Herod wasn’t in a place of ignorance. He had received insight. He was told clearly and it means Herod now had a decision to make. It meant that Herod was now in a position in which he would decide on one of two responses, at the very least. One would be to align with what God was doing, agree with it, and join in with what God was doing. The other response would be to continue to go back to his old ways and to resist vehemently. That would be the tension pulse for him.
We see what he does. He implements a different type of plan. We’re told in verse seven, that Herod called for a private meeting with a Wise Men and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared and he told him, “Go to Bethlehem, search carefully for the child, and when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him too.” It’s his way of saying, “Okay, you guys want to know where? The town is called Bethlehem, according to my scholars. I want you to go and find Him. Make sure it’s Him. Then you come back and let me know because I too want to honor Him and pay my respects. I want to worship Him. Ascribe Him worth. I want to do that.” The Wise Men didn’t know Herod had no such intention. He had no desire to worship the child king. What he wanted to do was far more dark and insidious. The Wise Men have no idea and made their way. In verse nine we’re told that after this interview, the Wise Men went their way, and the star they had seen in the East, guided them to Bethlehem ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was.
This mysterious star, this celestial reality occurred over 2,000 years ago. Many have speculated what it could have been. Maybe a comet or an alignment of planets that made it look like a star that had just shown over the town of Bethlehem. They don’t really know. What they know is that these Wise Men, the scientists of their day, were behaving, acting, and responding according to what they knew. However simple it may be, or however more complex, that is what they did. In verse 10, we’re told that when they saw the star, they were filled with joy, entered the house, and saw the child with his mother, Mary. They bowed down and worshiped Him. They opened their treasure chests and gave Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These men of educated standing, royalty, and means, ended up drawing near to the house where they did not expect. They expected Jerusalem to be very aware of this child, but they didn’t see that. They saw an unknown child, in an unknown location. They drew near to this humble setting and simple place. They worshiped him. Grown men, worshiping a child.
Consider that grown, educated men of means, bowed down to a child and ascribed worth to Him. This is the one promised by God. They bring out gifts. Gold, speaking of royalty, gold is what is given to a king or one of a royal class. Frankincense, incense was given in a temple, is offered up as something generally towards God, Himself. Myrrh, speaks to what one uses to prepare a body for burial in their day. Each element speaks of the different aspects of the consequence of this life. Each element is intentionally chosen. They did not choose these by accident. They chose these intentionally. We see in this act what would be called a tribute. When one nation gives a tribute to a greater nation. When one would seek an alliance with another kingdom, that is what is unfolding here. A tribute is being given to this child king. It’s a statement. It’s a statement being made. It’s a declaration. We align with you. We do more than that. We bow to you and whatever happens in your life, from the very beginning, we’re saying we want to be friendly toward it. Our realm, our kingdom, our sphere is friends with yours.
It’s a decision that was made to make this journey. It’s a posture that was intentionally taken. It was beyond custom. It was something sincere and powerful in front of Jesus’s own parents. This unfolds. We’re told that after that time, perhaps some words were exchanged. Maybe some things were said that were left unwritten. We’re told in verse 12 that when it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route for God intervened. He warned them in a dream not to return to Herod. After the Wise Men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. That is the one who was married to Mary. “Get up. Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” This is how Herod will respond. He is coming after you and so I want you to leave. That night, Joseph left for Egypt with a child and Mary, his mother. They stayed there until Herod’s death and this fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet. The older Testament speaks of this verse. I called my son out of Egypt because Jesus was born in Israel, in Bethlehem and the first destination out of there was Egypt.
Out of Africa, God called His son later. Now Herod was furious. In verse 16 we’re told, “when he realized that the Wise Men had outwitted him, they had not fallen prey to his deception. He was revealed for what he was.” We’re told he sent soldiers and look at this unbelievable, truly dark, evil place Herod chooses to go. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under. Based on the Wise Men’s report of the star’s first appearance, this hideous act ends up being recorded in Jewish history, as one of the most sorrowful periods in their time. The streets are filled with mothers and mourning; fathers are distraught, powerless to do anything about it. Their hopes, dreams, and children, are gone. All because of a man’s insecurity. All because of a man feeling threatened by a child. A child. Because of all that he represented. This is what is being shown here. It tells us that Jesus was born into a heap of controversy. That His life from the very first breath to the final breath was a life of significant consequence. It threatened power structures. Even as a baby, it threatened the powers of His day. It caused some to celebrate and be filled with joy. Others, to oppose with nothing short of dark violence and anger.
We’re also shown polar opposite ways of how to respond to what God may want to do in someone’s life. We’re shown one side that vehemently opposes and the other side that goes the extra mile to join in what God is doing. One filled with anger, hatred, insecurity, and looking out for his own. If you threaten me, it’s all over. We’re done. You’re as good as dead to me. On the other, the exact opposite. I’m not threatened. I want to be a part of it. I want to join. That’s the spectrum. Somewhere in that spectrum, there could also be indifference. The idea is that it’s good for you. Not for me. I’m okay. That’s also possible. Wherever we might land, I think the Wise Men supply us with a model of how to consider posturing ourselves for the coming year.
In the remaining moments we have here, I’d like to look at this through the lens of what it might look like to posture ourselves for the new year. The Wise Men model what a willingness to be open to the new thing God wants to do looks like. That is what they show us. The Wise Men themselves set out on a journey based on what they knew. They understood something was up but they didn’t have the whole picture. They didn’t understand every single detail. They pulled on the thread they had in their hand and wanted to see if it would lead anywhere, one step at a time. That’s what they did. They used what they knew and understood. They figured out God was up to something. They wanted to see what it was. I’m open and curious, and I’ll figure it out. They set themselves out on a long journey. Without modern-day technology, it would be somewhat of an inconvenience. Think about months of inconvenience. They set their time and resources aside and made this journey. They were open to what God was doing. They were curious about it. They were interested in it.
I wonder what it would look like, especially for some of us who may not be accustomed to considering what God may want to say to us personally. What God may want to do in our own lives. What would it look like, wherever we might be in this year? Some of us are just happy the year’s over. There are some things that went on this year that we think, “Boy, I’m just is glad that’s behind me.” We’re happy we survived. We made it and that is reason to be joyful. I’m still here. That’s a big deal. Wherever we might be, what would it look like for us? Others might go a little bit beyond just being. We might already have next year, 2016, 365 days planned. We understand what’s going to happen. We have our agenda and no one’s getting in our way. We’re executing it. Wherever we might. For others of us, we have no idea wherever we might fall. What would it look like in the coming days, especially on the other side of a week, filled with so much activity for us, to slow down? Set some time aside. Just ask the question, sincerely. God, what do you want to do in my life? I have my plans. I have my desires. I have my hopes and my dreams, but God, I want to listen. What do you want to do in my life?
That’s what it looks like to be open, to consider, and then to wait because he will speak. He will speak. We take one step at a time. We might have an abundance of understanding. We might have nothing. We just understand this much. That’s okay. One step. I’m open to you, God. 2016, I want to be open to you. I want to be more open to you. There might be something new God wants to do inside of us. Others might have some struggles or challenges. It’s so hard not to get cynical or skeptical. When we start something, there is something of an internal battle that occurs where we start to be filled with so many doubts. Why? Because we have experienced failure in such profound ways in our past. We wonder if it’s ever going to be possible for us. It may be that God wants to do something new that we’ve never experienced in our lives before. He’s not asking us. He’s not saying, “Are you capable?” He’s saying, “Are you willing?” That’s what the Wise Men model. A willingness. They also show us that it is good to embrace the posture of humility. They model a willingness to embrace a posture of humility. These are men who are educated, wealthy and have accomplished certain things. They were accustomed to a certain social status. They find an unknown child, in an unknown region, unknown to the powers that be, in a location that is humble. It’s simple with modest parents and they bow before the child.
Jesus was not beneath them. They were not too proud of Him. They did not look down upon Him. They did not disregard Him. He was but a child and yet they did not do that. They embraced. It’s one step further. It’s beyond the place of being open. It’s the place of saying, “What you say to me, I embrace. What you respond to me, God, I am there and I embrace it.” It’s a willingness. Humility gives us the ability to be patient in our season and not be filled with frustration when things don’t go our way or end up as ideal as we thought they would. Many times in life, we engage in something where we have a picture that this is going to be amazing. Then reality hits and it’s not amazing. It’s hard work. It ends up being something that grieves us a little bit. It disappoints us sometimes. It causes some degrees of suffering, but it is there. Can you hear it? It’s there that God actually births something new.
It is in the breaking of the soil that the seed is able to be planted. It’s when our soul is soft, moldable, and open to what He wants to put inside of us. When we humble ourselves, we end up discovering He longs to do something. Some of us might already be moving forward with God this year. Maybe this season is not going quite how we expected. The word we might want to consider is to not despise a day of small beginnings. To not look down upon the meager results we might see right now, especially when God is trying to stew something inside of us. Whether it’s launching something and we may not have as much traction as we would like. Or it’s engaging in something internal and we’re not getting the progress we want. Maybe it’s something relational. God is asking us, “Will you be the one who humbles yourself?”
We do it and people don’t respond. We say, “Sorry.” They don’t. Don’t despise that. You do it. Humble yourself. This is the year to position ourselves that way. It gives us the ability to be surrendered. It gives us the ability to be agile emotionally. It gives us the ability to adapt to the different changes and shifts in our year. Especially if we are of the more organized type where everything has its place. I understand that type. But it is humility that gives us the ability to say, “Well, Lord, I’m open to you. I embrace what you want to do.”
Life is messy sometimes. When we embrace it, it can be extremely beautiful. The Wise Men model something else. They model what it looks like to give a hope-filled offering, a posture for the coming year. This is the way I think of it. They drew near to the one they knew would be king and they didn’t come asking. They came giving. They drew near to the one who was spoken of as the mighty God, the Prince of Peace, Everlasting Father and they didn’t come in. They came doing what they came giving. I give. Many times we might be accustomed to receiving. We might be accustomed to being recipients of other people’s goodness in our lives. We might be accustomed to being the ones who others encourage. Others speak life into. Others hear us. Others listen to us when we are discouraged or when we’re in pain and they comfort us. They’re the ones who give to us and that might be great. It may be that this is a season where God might be saying, “Now your turn.” Now it’s your turn to be the one who gives.
I wonder if 2016 is the year some of us, not all of us, but some of us, He might be nudging forward to say, this is the year you’re supposed to give to others. This is the year you’re supposed to speak life to others. Encourage others. Speak words of grace to others. This is a year you hold your tongue a little bit more. You listen and give the gift of compassion, suffer with another. This is that year. It could be the year we give over resources to His good work. It might be the year we commit ourselves and say, “Lord, out of what you have given to me, I will give to you to what you are doing. This is the year. I will do that.” Maybe it’s that. Others might be accustomed to giving to people. I have met people that are generous towards others and maybe it’s not necessarily towards people. It may be that God is saying, “I invite you to give to me. To give to my work. To speak a good word in my name. To offer your time for what I want to do in other people’s lives. To align with what I’m doing, that’s going to affect eternal things.”
It may be that we have been observants, passive observers of what is going on around us. This is the time, this is the year, that God is saying, “It’s time for you to stand up and be a participant. Roll up your sleeves. Engage in what I am doing in other people’s lives. Take the risk of praying for others. Take the risk of learning my words so that you can give somebody an encouraging word one day. Be the one who stands up for me. Be the one who declares my worth.” Maybe this is the year you’re an active participant.
Who was filled with joy? The Wise Men. Who were the ones who were filled with gratitude? It was the ones who ended up drawing near. They were open. They embraced and got a front-row seat. A front-row seat to all that God was doing. There in that place, in that posture, in the childlike place before the child, we find a great model for how to transition from this year that has passed and the new year that is coming. May that be the case. May we prepare our hearts. May we reflect. May we become grateful. May we be open to what He wants to do. May we embrace what He longs to say and do in our lives. May we be the ones who have the privilege of giving in His name. May that be the case. In a moment, we’re going to receive our time of giving and closing song. I would like to pray and ask for His blessing as we consider this together.
Lord, we thank you. We thank you that you’re a God of new beginnings. You’re a God of second, third, fourth, and many chances. You offer us opportunities, God, to draw near to you. You never abandon us. You never forsake us but you long to always make us more aware of what you are doing all around us. I pray that you would help us. You would help us take full advantage of this final week of the year. Help us position ourselves. Help us enter 2016, in a childlike way that is open to you, willing to embrace you, and willing to experience your life coursing through our soul. I pray for this. I ask for your blessing. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Guest Speaker Jeff Louie begins our Advent series, ” Faith Like a Child”.