[Jan. 2, 2010]
Today’s the 9h day of Christmas. Like in the song …. “On the ninth day of Christmas my true love sent to me: nine ladies dancing, eight maids a milking, seven swans a swimming, six geese a laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.” But my true love didn’t send me any of those gifts today.
It’s a silly song—and meant to be such.
But there is a serious intent behind the idea of the 12 days of Christmas themselves. They stretch from December 25, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, to January 6, the day many Christians throughout history have remembered the “epiphany,” the manifestation of Christ to the world, as seen in the visit of the magi.
We Seventh-day Adventists don’t make a big deal about the liturgical calendar. But I like following it at this time of year because the Biblical stories of the birth of Christ are so rich that we need to take time looking at all the different themes and images they lay before us. Two weeks ago I focused on the introduction to John’s gospel, where he tells us that Jesus was the eternal Word of the Father, the Word by which the Father created; “in him was life, and the life was the light of men.”
Today I want to focus on Matthew’s account. Turn with me to Matthew 2.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
Matthew calls them “magi,” translated in the King James Version as “wise men”—not kings.
Where did we get the idea they were kings? From Isaiah 60:1-6.
1Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee.
2For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
3And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
6The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD.
Matthew probably had this in mind as he wrote his account, and Christians through the centuries have connected the two passages, turning the wise men into kings, and placing them on the backs of camels.
Where did we get the idea that there were three of them? From the gifts Matthew says they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
What were these magi, if not kings? The word itself is the plural form of the Greek word magos. It’s a Persian word, originally referring to the priests of the Persian religion, Zoroastrianism.
Matthew says they were from the East, so I think it is likely that is what they were. If so, they had much in common with the Jews. They believed in one God. They believed in good and evil, and a struggle between God and Satan. They believed in prophets who spoke God’s word. They believed that the dead would sleep until the last day, when they would be raised to eternal life.
From Matthew’s account, it is clear that they knew something of Jewish prophecy (and that shouldn’t surprise us, for Jews had lived in Persia for 500 years; the prophet Nehemiah was a Persian king’s cupbearer; Esther was a Persian king’s wife). And they studied the stars. And they put 2 and 2 together and connected a new star with the prophecies of the Messiah, and made their way to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”
Matthew continues, telling us that “When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,”
Note that the wise men were told by Herod that Bethlehem was the place they should go. They didn’t know it. They saw the star and they traveled to Jerusalem. Herod had to get his Bible scholars together to name the place: Bethlehem.
9When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
Up to this point, we might have imagined that the star was an ordinary star—or even a conjunction of planets, as some astronomers suggest. But this star is different. This star that they saw in the east now reappears. And now it moves. It guides them. It takes its time hovering in the sky and stops directly over the place where the child is. It’s a beacon telling them, This is the place!
10When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
Notice what it says, “when they were come into the house.” Not the stable. Perhaps we should understand this to mean that after Jesus was born in the stable, Mary and Joseph were able to secure some better accommodations in the town.
But that’s not important. This is, however—notice this: The king of Israel doesn’t come to worship the baby. The religious scholars don’t come. The Jewish priests don’t come. The ordinary people in the street don’t come. But these Gentiles do, signifying that while Jesus is indeed the son of David, while Jesus is the hoped for messiah of Israel, he is more. He is the savior of the whole world. His light is to shine upon all men.
But the story doesn’t end there. Herod had told the wise men to come back to him when they found the child, in order that he, too, might worship. But God warned the magi and Joseph of Herod’s true intent. And Herod, verse 16,
was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,
In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
This early attempt to take Jesus’ life gives a sense of what is to come. In Revelation 12, John says that “the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.”
And a day would come when it appeared the dragon was triumphant. When that body that had been wrapped in swaddling clothes would be stripped, and the one who had lain in a manger would be nailed to a cross.
“He came unto his own, and his own received him not.”
But this was the plan established in the beginning. He was the lamb slain from the foundation of the world. He chose this humiliation. He accepted this death. Out of love for us.
That’s why I chose our scripture from Philippians 2. Verse 8 says, “being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
But that wasn’t the end of the story—verse 9: “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Few knelt at his birth. A few shepherds, some magi from a foreign country. But these few knew who he was. These few knew who sent him. And the magi at least had a sense of where his destiny lie; they knew that powers of darkness would seek to destroy him. But they came, and they knelt, and they worshipped.
And the Bible tells us that the day will come when all the world will join them in that act. The world might not recognize him now. The world buries the baby under piles of presents and images of snow men and reindeer—and then is ready to throw out the tree and the decorations to get on with the next party. The world cannot comprehend. It will not bend the knee.
But it will, on that final day, when he shall come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead.
This morning is a chance for us to reflect on these themes. To remember why he came. To remember not merely his birth, but his life, and his death and resurrection, and his promise to return in glory.
And we do it in word and in action. We begin now by recalling his humility. By recalling that he stripped himself of glory, to take the form of a servant. By recalling that on the night in which he was betrayed he took time to kneel before his disciples, and to wash their feet. He said this is the essence of the kingdom. This is what it means to be one of his disciples—to do as he did. …
“Tell me the story of Jesus.” That’s what we are here to do today. The whole story—his birth, his life of service, his death and resurrection. Together they are the good news—that God did not abandon us in our sins, but sent his only son for us.
Few brought him presents when he was born—but to know the story aright is to see that he is the Father’s gift to us.
And so we join now, in his supper, not in sorrow, not in somberness, but in joy and thanksgiving; in gratitude for his love.