Pastor Paul continues our Wonder advent series with a sermon from Matthew 2:1-12
I’ve got to be honest; I am really jazzed about this Christmas season. Gilbert crew got back into our house after our little kitchen fire mishap and they have been busily scrubbing every surface. I didn’t know that there were that many surfaces to scrub in a house. Our house has never been cleaner since it was built. So, I would love a little Advent fire every year. It would be awesome. I love Four Oaks at Christmas. The lights, the Christmas Eve service (Melissa, no hair spray this year as we are passing that flame around) Melissa caught on fire one year but any way parents its ok. We have safety monitors, so it’s ok. Love our décor back here and if you don’t like that, if you’re a traditionalist, bah humbug to you.
I love this because we have a lot of gifted singers, artists, creative people, and talented people in these areas and I am not ashamed to say that I am not one of them, ok? This explains why when I was in elementary school in Chattanooga I was a part of the Chattanooga boy’s choir. I know, its shocking. Every year they would do the singing Christmas tree at the Tivoli theatre and my first year there, they asked me to be Joseph, mainly because I didn’t have to do anything, and I didn’t have to open my mouth. So I just stood there the whole time staring at the plastic baby doll in the manger and of course, the pinnacle of that performance and the pinnacle of every Christmas performance it seems is that as Mary and Joseph are gathered around the manger and the angels are there and of course they bring in the shepherds and trail them all in there at one time, so what it the coup de gras? They bring in the wise men, right? They are bearing their gold and frankincense and myrrh and they perch the star on top of the set. They play “We Three Kings, which I’ve always kind of liked. If you don’t remember the first verse, let me flash it up here for you. The first verse says “We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts, we’ve traversed afar” (its not travelled, like I always thought, its traversed) “Field and fountain, moor and mountain following yonder star” So I asked Josh if we could sing that this morning and he selfishly refused. Something about “artistic integrity” and also something about “it not being Biblical”. That’s always an important criteria, so as I studied this passage this week, lo and behold, he is right! There is not necessarily three, they are not kings, probably not from the Orient and this was not a star per se. Other than that, this song gets it all right, ok? We are going to be talking about the star and the wise men so you can turn in your Bibles to Matthew chapter 2. Since we are talking about stars and galaxies and celestial events, it seemed like the appropriate time for me to break out the top ten spoilers of Force Awakens and relate them to the Christian faith, should I do that? Oh I wont even tell you about Luke and…. I won’t even go there.
Good stuff actually, part of an Advent series that we are calling “Wonder”. Seeing the supernatural in Christmas. You may say, “That seems like a strange thing, Pastor Paul, to be preaching on. Isn’t the whole point of Christmas, is that things are supernatural? Isn’t that the essence of it? That God became man? Why have we titled the series in this way? We love to get after the progressives and secular elites this time of year, who try to deconstruct Christmas and say it is a myth, and it is a fable, and it is not historical, but we often do the same things. Not by attack, but by neglect. These stories, because they are so familiar and they are such a part of our cultural landscape and fabric of our society, it is so easy to take them for granted. It is so easy to lose the supernatural and when that happens, heaven help us, we lose worship. Our hearts are not awakened to the wonder and the joy of God become man, our king who calls us to worship him. In fact, you may have noticed, all of our songs this morning had something to do with the throne of God or King Jesus or looking to Christ, worshipping him and that is what we are praying God does for us this morning. That he will awaken our hearts to wonder and awe as we taste and experience King Jesus anew. So Matthew Chapter 2, Wonder: Wise Men and the Worship of a King. We will start in verse 1.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
Lets pray. Lord, such a familiar passage, such familiar characters, we are in danger of losing the awe and wonder, and when we lose the awe and wonder we lose worship. We lose a heart ignited and fueled by a passion for you. We are asking today, Lord, that we would walk out of here different. That we would be reminded anew of who we worship and the claims he makes upon our life. Joyful claims, joyous claims of peace and righteousness and forgiveness and love for his people. Lord, we want to be awakened to that and we pray that you would do it in Jesus name, Amen. I want to propose, that despite our best efforts to domesticate the story in this passage, to sort of neuter it, to call it a quaint narrative a story of inspiration, that we have something far different here. What we have, what Matthew gives us, is a clash of views. It is a cosmic collision of two kingdoms. On one hand you have the kingdom of darkness and of the world, personified by this ruler/tyrant Herod. On the other hand you have this darkness being invaded by the kingdom of light and the gospel which, paradoxically, is led by a little baby in a manger. I think Matthew does this for a reason. These aren’t just stories to communicate history, although as we have seen they very much do that. Matthew is presenting these stories because he is wanting to bring into stark relief the choice that is for each and every one of us. Who are we in this story? How do we locate ourselves in this passage? Which kingdom are we a part of? Most importantly, which kingdom holds our allegiance and our worship?
Now, in a room at Christmas time, of course, every one of us in here probably would say, “of course, Pastor Paul, I’m with Jesus. I’m with the Magi. I’m with those guys.” No one ever signs their Christmas cards, “Having a great year over here with Herod in the kingdom of darkness.” Probably not how you penned yours, ok? Yet, Matthew invites us in to let down our guard and to call us to realign ourselves with the king and kingdom of the universe. It’s really simple. We are going to talk about the who, and the what, and the how in this passage and then end by asking each of us who we identify with. Where do we locate ourselves in terms of our heart’s allegiance?
Let’s dive in. There are three sorts of players in this passage. Three primary groups of people: Herod, the Magi, and, of course, Jesus. Herod is brilliant, he is quasi-religious, he is feared and he is ruthless. He is the Donald Trump of antiquity, ok? I saw a great tweet last night “If Donald Trump gets elected President, I’m leaving the country and moving to California.” There is something for everyone in that statement. I’m not making a political statement here.
Herod, king over Judea, the king appointed by the Roman Empire, they called him Herod the Great. He might have been terrible, but he was great. He was powerful. He left an indelible impression upon Palestine and the Middle East in that time. He was enormously successful, he was incredibly ambitious, he was religiously influenced since he was a half Jew, and he helped construct the second temple of the Jews to curry favor. In fact, he fashioned himself a Jew. Remember when we built this building? There is John Stewart. He built it with his own two hands by himself ok? We were all wondering, “why is it taking so long to get in here?” It didn’t really take long at all. Guys, 8 years is how long it took for the second temple to be completed, at least Herod’s portion of it. It was a marvel unimagined at that time. It’s kind of like Disney world where they keep adding on all the time and there is always something going on over there. That was the Temple. That was Herod. He wanted to leave a legacy. He was greatly admired, but he was greatly feared. He was a ruthless man. He had multiple wives and multiple kids. He had three of his sons and one of his wives assassinated because of palace intrigue and his fear that they were going to topple his throne. This passage is fairly soon before his death which means he is hyper in tune and hyper sensitized to anything or anybody who would breach his legacy or challenge him in his power. In fact, he said, he was so consumed with what people thought about him that he said that the day I die I decree that a member of every Jewish nobleman’s household be killed because if my house is going to mourn, I want everyone’s house to mourn and they will always identify the passing of their child with my passing. Not the guy you want to invite to the holiday Christmas part, right? He is not that guy. So, that is Herod, number one.
Number two the wise men or Magi. Literally, Magi is the term. Who were the Magi? We think, the best that we can tell, they were probably professional astronomers. They were people who studied the sky. They studied celestial events. They studied them though, not for scientific sake, but in the service of astrology. So they were always interested in interpreting the signs of the heavens & celestial events whether stars or comets or junctions or supernovas or whatever and interpreting them in some way. Applying them to a kingdom or ruler or a particular people. For us, we would say they were pretty primitive. It seems like they were some sort of magicians and sorcerers and in some ways they were from our perspective, but in their day they were greatly respected. They were philosophers they were held in high regard. Daniel, who was a Jew, and exported and deported to Babylon to serve in the court of Nebuchadnezzar was kind of a Magi. He had dreams and he had visions. Of course, what distinguished him was that those were from the Lord.
We think, probably, and this is not definitive, this is not “thus saith the Lord” but they were probably from the region of Babylon and we think that for two reasons. One of which is that Babylon was like the epicenter of astronomical observation. There are all sorts of records and sources that indicate that was a key center for people who stargazed and interpreted, but more importantly, Babylon was a place where there were a lot of Jews. So let’s remember 500-600 years before, as Israel was scattered, the northern kingdom taken captive and conquered by the Assyrians and the southern kingdom by Babylon or Babylonians. They were exported/deported all across the known Middle Eastern empire and a lot of them ended up in Babylon. It was the capital of the Persian Empire. It would have been very feasible then, for people like the Magi, because they were so interested in learning and observing and interpreting human events that they would have heard of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah.
See, the Jews were expectantly waiting that someone would come to save the day. Someone would come and fix this mess and restore them to their homeland. Restore them to their former glory. The Magi were in tune to this, in fact they probably gravitated to prophecies like this one listen to Numbers 24:17. This is Balaam’s prophecy and he says “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead[a] of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth.”
So, as the Magi are expectantly looking at the stars there was something they saw that we will talk about in a minute that compelled them, that helped them identify what is going on up there pretends something down here. We will talk a little bit more about that.
And of course the third major player in this story is Jesus, and the right answer to every question, right? The third player is the newborn king. Here is what is so amazing about this. At this point in time, Jesus is a helpless baby. When I say helpless baby I mean he is 100% God, 100% man, but he is completely dependant upon his mom and his dad and for the care that he receives. What is so amazing, and what I think Matthew really wants to press home for us is that this one person, seemingly helpless person, this baby literally propels kings and kingdoms into action. It is amazing so much tumult, conflict and worldview clashing is introduced by the appearance on the scene of this one person. I think Matthew does this intentionally, because look at the text where he quotes the Magi. When they arrive in Jerusalem what did they say? We are here to find the newborn king. Why? We want to worship him because he is what? The king of the Jews.
Here is something we need to understand Four Oaks. This passage makes a claim on us. When it comes to Jesus, neutrality is not an option. Jesus is not simply a religious figure. Jesus is not simply an inspirational religious leader. He is not someone who simply talks a good talk and has some good teachings but he is one of many assortments of religious paths that we can take. Make no mistake. Jesus comes to earth to be nothing else, if not worshipped. There is no middle ground with this by the way. Matthew puts this text right in front of you right in front of me and confronts us with it. Once we are confronted with it we are never the same. That is his intention. He does not want for you to walk out of here under the myth of neutrality. You are in one kingdom or the other. You are serving one king or the other. You are either, and this sounds primitive, but its so true, you are either walking in the kingdom of darkness following the path of Herod and worldliness and living for self and calling your own shots or you are in the line of King Jesus. And you are following behind him, yes imperfectly, yes struggling, but you know he is my Lord and Savior. That is what Matthew wants us to be confronted with.
So that is the who.
Let’s look back at the what. What in the world is going on in this text? Ok, apparently the Magi see the star, they set out. If they are from Babylon which we believe they probably are, its 550 miles from Babylon to Jerusalem which makes it a month or two journey if they are making the caravan on camels. It’s probably then, although hard to say, 2-3 months after Jesus’ birth that they arrive in Bethlehem, which means they come to a home and not the manger. So last night, the Gilbert entourage went and looked at Christmas lights in this neighborhood off of Fred George Road. Anybody made this journey yet? It was like watching an episode of The Great Christmas Light Fight on ABC. Americans do these things so bizarrely don’t we? It’s the strangest intermingling of the nativity scene and then Santa in an airplane in the same front yard? Classic. Classic Americana. At nativity scene after nativity scene, there we were shepherds angels and the wise men. But! Not so. This is probably happening 2-3 months after the birth of Jesus so they are most likely (Mary, Joseph and Jesus) in the town of Bethlehem upgraded from the stable, staying in a house while they recover before eventually making their way back to Nazareth. Most likely, that is the scenario.
So, the Magi come on the scene 60-90 days later and it says they first come to Jerusalem though and Herod conferred with the Jewish scholars. He had this group saying “We are here to find this king” and they assumed Herod would be joyful and they assumed the people of Jerusalem would be joyful, but as they found, they were not. In fact, it says, Herod was troubled. He despaired. He was up at night pacing the floor. He tells them to go find the baby because he doesn’t want to worship, what does he want to do? He wants to assassinate. We know that he was so intent on this, he was so jealous of his legacy and his hold on power, he had spent his whole kingdom reign fighting people, trying to keep control to be the ruler of Judea and we know that he was so intent on this that he had a plan A and a plan B. The plan A is: Wise men go to Bethlehem. Find him. Tell me. I send my guys and we are going to take him out. Plan B was: If you are reading in Matthew, the Magi were warned in a dream. They got out of there and Herod realized he had been duped and what does he do? He kills every child under the age of 2, boys, in the area of Bethlehem, which sounds like overkill doesn’t it? I told you guys a week or two ago that Jack had to be hospitalized for a night for strep throat, which seemed a little bit of overkill, right? They juiced him up; they gave him one of those big long shots of penicillin. They tried to do that to me one time at the dentist and I said “No! Absolutely not!” They wanted to be double sure. Herod wanted to be double sure. He wanted to leave no doubt, and here is a lesson for us Four Oaks. Herod would have self-identified as a Jew. Think about this. He had Jewish scribes and scholars who pointed out texts for him that we read a second ago like Micah 5:2 [and Matthew 2:6] let me read it again:
“And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”
That is from our text. Herod had access to the greatest teaching, the greatest scholars, and all the truth of the Old Testament. Guys, he lived in Zion! He resided near Jerusalem, the epicenter of the Jewish faith, but here is a lesson and this is oh, so important. He used his knowledge of God to set himself up against God in order to maintain his control. We have to remember, his knowledge of God did him no good. Our knowledge of God that does not impact and change the affections of our heart will do you no good.
James has a word for that. He says, “that faith is dead”. Demons have that sort of faith. Herod had that sort of faith and he knew it all, but it did him no good. Folks, pray that your knowledge, and we are a well educated very literate Biblically church family as a whole, pray that it would not terminate in knowledge alone because that won’t do us any good. Pray that it terminates in worship. Pray that your heart and my heart might be captured towards the king of the universe. Last point, “How does all this happen?” By what means, and I want to talk about the star here for a minute and explain why this is important to us, because it says in the text, they saw the star rising in the east, probably in the morning, and as the earth rotated and shifted to the west then they followed it west due west 500 something miles to Jerusalem and then it says interestingly in the text “The star led them”, that is the language Matthew uses, to Bethlehem. But, this is 5-6 miles south, so they were going west, then south and it says this star led them directly to the house where Jesus was. Now, let me say, there has been no little discussion over the ages about what this was or if it was at all. I mean, you hear people say, “No one else could see the star, but these guys. In fact it was an angel, kind of like the presence of God leading them.” Other people have said, “This is a celestial event like a conjunction of planets or those sorts of things.” But before we unpack that, let me tell you why this is important. Why this deserves some attention from you and some attention from me to best understand what Matthew is communicating. Guys, in our doctrinal statement as a church we affirm that the Bible, and I’m going to quote here, “is the verbally inspired word of God.” And here is quote “utterly authoritative and without error.” Which mean that we believe the Bible is true 100% in everything it says and everything it affirms. Now sometimes, you and I might interpret it wrongly, but the problem is with us, it is not with God’s Word. This does not mean that the Bible speaks to every issue exhaustively but it does mean that any issue the Bible speaks to, it speaks to truthfully.
For example, “God made the heavens and the earth.” Ok? From scratch, by the way. It doesn’t tell us exactly how that happens in terms of scientific process. For comparison, a lot of you are getting ready to make holiday dishes from scratch. Or you could just warm them up from the frozen section. That is ok too. You need to know that every year, or most every year, Gretchen Flemming makes these chocolate covered cherry things and the staff engages in its own intrigue. Because what they try to do is deceive me about when the cherries are going to be delivered because they know if they come and I am there I am going to stake my claim. Oftentimes I am coming in and there is only one half eaten one there. It is very discouraging. It does not make for a happy Christmas season. So, I was talking to Gretchen about this, who enlisted Kyle I understand. Is that right Kyle? You’ve been making these? I mean, what can go into making these? Don’t you just like get a cherry and pour some something on it like chocolate or something? Is that not…?
No, no, no. Gretchen unpacks the whole process and after like 30 seconds I’m like “What? I..Whatev…Um..I… uh… I don’t need to know how it is made to know that you made them.” Right? Guys, we don’t have to know. The Bible doesn’t necessarily feel compelled at every single instance to give us a detailed scientific map to tell us how certain things happen, but we know they did. Nonetheless, these are important issues to understand because a lot of us can walk away being embarrassed by stories like this. We can be sort of ashamed of them. And we need to say something here. Guys, the Bible is not the enemy of science. Science is not the enemy of the Bible. Science is a human endeavor which means that scientists, can you believe this, can be wrong about certain things, ok? They correct their hypothesis later as more data emerges. Guys did you know that theologians can be wrong. Theology is a human endeavor. Scientists can make mistakes. Theologians can make mistakes. But we believe that the world God has made, properly understood, the Word that God has given us, properly understood they are never in conflict in terms of what they truly affirm. Rightly understood, these things harmonize beautifully.
Why do I say all that? Moral of the story: Whatever Matthew is trying to communicate here, whatever he is saying happened, guess what? It happened. And it is true. It is not a myth, even if we don’t know exactly how it happened scientifically. Now, let me say that to say there are a lot of theories about what this could be. Was this a planet, was it a conjunction, was it a star? You need to know that in the Hebrew and in the way that the word “star” was used, it could refer to a host of celestial events. It could mean a number of different things. One of the books I want to commend to you if you want to really take a deep dive into this is a book by Colin Nicol called “The Great Christ Comet” This is not hokey National Inquirer stuff this has been endorsed by all the usual suspects & Crossway Publishes this. You can see the comet there [on the cover] He theorizes that this was a comet and he writes this as a scientist and astronomer and they painstakingly gel the Biblical data with the scientific data to say “Yes, yes, yes. It is highly possible. It is very possible for a comet to do exactly what Matthew says it does in this passage.” Now a lot of people would say, “That is just absurd. No astronomical entity could actually pinpoint a house. That is foolishness.” Guys, this book talks about how it can happen in terms of perspective and sight. How something can give the appearance of being over something else.
Is it supernatural? Is it natural? Yes. It is both of those things. Let me explain how this works. If you go to the Magic Kingdom and you want to see the fireworks show, and you follow the fireworks where does it take you? Where does it take you? The castle of course. You get to the castle and you see all the fireworks exploding over the castle. Here is a little Disney secret. Did you know that standing in front of the Disney castle is not the best place to watch the fireworks? Okay, where is it? You go behind the castle. That’s a little known secret. I can give you a bunch of these if you take me to lunch, I will tell you. You realize these fireworks aren’t exploding above the castle. They are exploding way behind the castle. And you can get the best view of the fireworks by being on that side, but if you go to the Magic Kingdom and you follow the fireworks, where are they leading? They are leading to the castle. They make a very scientifically compelling case that it is exactly what happens here. Take a deep dive and look at this if it really interests you. Folks, we have nothing to fear from science. I am pro science. I have a graduate degree in a secular field, social sciences. I have a theology degree. We have nothing to fear. Time and understanding is always on our side. You can have confidence in The Book. Matthew wants you to have confidence in The Book. Conclusion. Two application points and then we’re done. We’ve looked at the who, the what, and the how. Now two application points.
Number one. A sign (the star is a sign) no matter how beautiful and how awesome and how glorious is still just a sign. It is interesting that the wise men followed this glorious celestial event, and make no mistake, Herod knew about it, the people in Jerusalem knew about it. Nobody knew what to make of it, but when the wise men got to the house of Jesus in Bethlehem, what did they do? They didn’t continue to stand outside and look at the sign. They went into the house because that is where worship happened. The star was just a sign to point to the true reality and object of their worship. Let’s be honest. We know this. We are a culture captivated and enamored with signs and glory. The glory of sex, the glory of food, the glory of travel the glory of experience, the glory of connectivity, the glory of money and fill in the blank for yourself. Nothing wrong with signs. Signs are gifts from God, but signs are never meant to terminate in and of themselves. That is called idolatry. Signs are meant to terminate in worship. Our problem is that we worship all too often the sign and not the reality. Four Oaks, signs are beautiful for what they point us to. Pray this season that God will open your heart beyond the obvious glories and signs around us and deepen your affections for the Savior.
Second application point and then we are going to close here. Who are you in this story. Have you been thinking about that? I asked that question from the beginning. We’re the Magi, of course, aren’t we? Aren’t you the Magi, seeking God, worshipping Jesus. You know, weathering any and all dangers and threats of Herod and those aligned against him. Matthew includes this little inclusio, this little cautionary tale that is going to forecast something that is going to be returned to over and over again in his gospel. He tells us that not only was Herod troubled, and we get that, we know why Herod was troubled, but guess what, all Jerusalem was troubled with him. I find that strange initially. Here you have the Jews waiting 400 years for their Messiah, steeped in the knowledge of His Word, looking to the prophecies, looking to this celestial event and even when someone came to Jerusalem to tell them, “Hey, we think the king of the Jews has just been born. We are going there to worship him.” All you hear are crickets because no one made a move to go. No one made a move to follow. There were no celebrations. There were no pilgrimages. It just says they were troubled. We have to ask why. Well, if you think about it, things were pretty ok for the Jewish people at that time. It wasn’t perfect, they certainly had masters above them, but they had their temple, their worship, their lives, their protection, their peace. They knew if Herod got upset, that was going to be trouble for them because it was going to be on and their lives would never be the same. So, even when the anointed Word appeared they weren’t interested because they had not been craving the salvation to come. It was just too much to lose. So before we run past this story and say “Yes, yes, yes. We are the Magi.” Matthew asks you to locate yourself. Which kingdom and king are you craving for this season? Who or what has captured your awe and your wonder and your worship?
Let’s remember Four Oaks as we come to the table this morning that if we are all honest, we must confess we have all been ensnared in some way in this battle of kingdoms and darkness. That’s why Jesus did not stay a baby. That is why Jesus did not immediately establish his throne and his reign. The baby came and was born in order to die. In order to die for people who struggle, who sin, whose lives are broken. So when we come to this table this morning we are proclaiming simultaneously our allegiance to King Jesus and at the same time, our great sin and struggle in following him. That’s why he came, to fix that problem in your heart and in mine.