St Michael’s 1st January 2017
Readings – Isaiah 49:8-13; Matthew 2:1-12
I guess most if not all of us are very familiar with the story of the wise men. From an early age we’ve all heard about the kings who travelled to bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to baby Jesus. It’s an essential part of the Christmas story told again and again in song and story and sermon, even if some of the details we have learnt aren’t perhaps always the most accurate. For example, we’re not sure if there were three of them, and if they did travel across the desert, it’s unlikely they passed across field and fountain, moor and mountain despite what a well-known carol might say.
But if you look at Matthew’s gospel as a whole, in many ways chapter 2 sticks out a bit like the proverbial sore thumb. Let me explain what I mean. Chapter 1 starts with a typical Jewish family tree tracing Jesus’ descent from Abraham and David, two of the founding fathers of the Jewish faith. When the angel appears to Joseph, his message is clear: the coming of Jesus is in fulfilment of Old Testament Scriptures. Skip forward to chapter 3 and it is the people of Judea and Jerusalem who are flocking out to hear John the Baptist. It is they who witness Jesus’ baptism and a voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be the Son of God – again another quote from the Old Testament.
Indeed Matthew is the most Jewish of all four gospels, and in many ways the visit of the wise men doesn’t fit. They are an interruption, an intrusion into the story of how Jesus came to the people of Israel as their long-expected Saviour. And that actually is the whole point. They don’t belong to God’s people. We don’t where exactly they come from, only they’re from somewhere out East. They don’t know anything about the right way to worship the Lord, and such information as they have has come from them reading the stars. They don’t know where to find Jesus, and despite the leading of the star, they end up in the wrong place, in Jerusalem, because this is where they reason the king of the Jews is to be found. And they don’t know the Old Testament Scriptures which would have told them that king Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem.
In fact, for all that these men are supposed to be wise, they really don’t know anything much at all about Jesus. But what they have going for them, quite simply, is a desire to find Him. And that is why they are included in the Christmas story. Later on in Matthew’s gospel we will hear about Jesus talking about the kingdom of heaven, and the question naturally arises who can be part of Jesus’ kingdom? The answer is anyone who has a desire to find and to follow Jesus.
And that’s a truly liberating truth. So often people think that to be a Christian you have to come from the right background, or be used to worshipping the Lord, or be familiar with your Scriptures. Actually the starting point is the desire of your heart. You may be sitting here this morning, thinking you don’t understand much of what I’m saying, or thinking maybe you’re not qualified to be a follower of Jesus. All I can say is that if you are set on finding out who Jesus is, you’re in the right place. What matters most is that like the wise men you want to discover Jesus. The good news of Jesus is good news precisely because it includes people from every walk of life, from humble shepherds to wise men from afar. It even includes you.
The wise men are there in the story because they have a desire to follow Jesus. What else can we learn from them?
The next thing I believe they teach us is the nature of worship. Listen again to verse 10 and the start of verse 11: When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Now we don’t know how long the wise men had been searching for Jesus, but somehow they knew that when they came to the house where He was staying, their journey was over. Not in a purely physical sense – although they must have been relieved that they could at last stay somewhere for a brief while – but also in a deeper sense as well. Although we don’t know for sure, these wise men had probably spent many years looking for the sign of a king’s birth. They didn’t know when this sign would appear or where it would lead them. But now their searching was over. No wonder they were overjoyed. They saw in Jesus all their hopes fulfilled, the royal child who would change their lives forever.
So how did they respond? Well, they fished around in their pockets for a bit of loose change, donated a few toys their kids didn’t play with any more and they brought out some tins they found at the back of their store cupboards. Because that’s what worship of the Lord means, doesn’t it? No, of course not! Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. Now we are used to the idea that the wise men were rich and perhaps they were. But such gifts were still incredibly costly. They had undertaken great risks to transport them across the desert. They may well have wondered what this poor family living in Bethlehem might do with them. Yet despite all these practical considerations, they still gave the very best that they could offer. They understood that if Jesus was the king they had been seeking He deserved the most precious and valuable treasures they had to hand. This is the second reason why the story of the wise men is included in Matthew’s gospel.
And thirdly, the wise men are also here to teach us about the nature of obedience. Verse 12 … having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. Now, if you think about it, there are two essential components in obedience. The first is listening to what is said. The second is actually putting what you’ve heard into practice. For the wise men, this involved hearing a warning in a dream and then taking a new direction, making sure they didn’t bump into King Herod and his henchmen.
Why a dream? Well, remember that the wise men knew little of the Old Testament Scriptures. The Lord spoke to them in a way that was most appropriate to their circumstances, and what is interesting is that even today He still often speaks in dreams to people who are prevented from having access to the Bible. So for example thousands of Muslims in closed Middle Eastern countries have turned to Christ simply because Jesus has appeared to them in a dream. They have heard His voice, they have responded and for many of them this has meant a complete change of direction in their lives even despite the considerable risks.
What about for us? I can’t prove this, but I believe for those of us who have access to the Bible the way the Lord wants to speak to us is primarily through His word. You see, the reason why the Bible was written down was so that through it we might hear God speak. That’s why we stress again and again that Scripture is at the heart of this particular church’s life. When, at the end of a lesson the reader says, “This is the word of the Lord”, he or she is making a really important point. The Bible is God’s word to us. The question is: are we listening and then acting on what we hear?
I hope that by now you can see just relevant and important is the story of the wise men to us. But let’s rewind for a moment and stop to consider Herod and all those religious leaders back there in Jerusalem. They did come from the right background. They followed the correct procedures to worship the Lord. They knew their Old Testament Scriptures. They knew where Jesus was to be found. But there is no evidence that any of them went off to find Jesus for themselves. Indeed Herod could only see Jesus as a threat to be eliminated – more about that next week.
Now a few weeks ago a group of us went on a church away day. We haven’t had much opportunity since then to reflect on that day because so many good things have happened since. But one important theme came out again and again during our time away – that our discipleship grows out of our desire to follow Jesus. We can carry out all the duties expected of us as a Christian, we can know our Bibles inside out, we can serve the church in a thousand and one different ways, but all this will count for very little if we do not have a desire to find and to follow Jesus.
There’s a verse from the Old Testament – 1 Samuel 16, verse 7 – that has spoken to me powerfully recently: Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. The Lord knows whether Jesus is, as a modern worship song puts it, our passion and prize. The Lord knows whether in the coming year our resolution is to know Jesus more deeply and love Him more deeply. The Lord knows whether we truly accept Jesus as Lord over every part of our lives. We can perhaps manufacture some kind of desire that impresses others, but I’m not here talking about simple emotion. It’s more like setting the compass of our hearts to one fixed point and resolving to travel in the direction of Jesus, come what may.
You see, it is out of our desire that every other part of our Christian life flows. I talked earlier about giving as an expression of our worship, and I hope you got the point that Jesus deserves our very best. But Jesus won’t actually get our very best unless we actually are set on following Him. We can run stewardship campaigns and explain the financial state of the church in great detail. We can make emotional appeals about keeping St Michael’s and St Barnabas going. But the only way we will give as we ought is if we own Jesus as the king born for us, who died on the cross for our sins. So again, as we approach the coming year here with many financial challenges, can I simply ask you to consider again your giving in light of who Jesus is?
And, of course, our giving is only part of the whole wider issue of obedience. We are called to love Jesus, listen to what He is saying and go where He leads. That sounds very simple, but it means we have to be willing to be identified as a follower of Jesus. For the wise men there was probably no possibility of them returning to Judea. They were marked out as the people who didn’t tell Herod where Jesus was. There would be no question of them hiding their identity. The question is: are we willing in the coming year also to be marked out? That we will be prepared to follow Jesus no matter where He leads us, whatever the cost? After all, it’s not really as if we have a choice. If our hearts are set on Jesus, then no matter what we do others will notice the difference He makes to us. And in a very real sense we are not responsible for their reaction. Some will react positively, and some will react negatively. Our task is simply to take up the cross and carry on loving like Jesus, looking only to Him.
And this leads to one final point. If our discipleship flows out of our desire to follow Jesus so does our mission and our evangelism. What is it, after all, that will attract people to become part of God’s kingdom and find Jesus for themselves? Well, of course, it’s important that we have a well-run church with a good programme of events and a friendly welcome. We want everyone to feel they can belong and even join in. But folk will only stay and develop a desire to know Jesus if they see that same kind of desire in us.
Before Christmas we spent some time looking at Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which included these words, which to me get to the heart of what church is all about:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14)
Because it is when this kind of love unites and fills the whole church of Jesus Christ, that others will see exactly who Jesus is. That is why our relationships in the church matter so much, since it is the quality of our relationships that shows other people who Jesus is and where our heart is focused. When folk see us united in love for Jesus and for one another, when they see us giving in response to the love He first shows us, and when they see our willingness to follow Jesus, no matter what the cost, that is when, I believe, they discover that in Jesus their spiritual searching is over and worship Him for themselves as their king.
So to sum up: the story of the wise men is here in the Bible to teach us about desire, about worship and about obedience. Let’s not hung up, too much, then about whether there were three of them, and how exactly they travelled. Rather as we look forward to the coming year, let’s seek a greater desire for Jesus, a greater willingness to worship, and a greater commitment to obedience. Not only that we might follow Jesus ever more closely, but also that through us others too will find Him and God’s kingdom grows to the praise of His glory. Amen.