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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

December 29, 2013

 The Perfect Gifts for a New Year

Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:1-12

             The story of the wise men or Magi is a lovely one, and a story known even to people who know almost nothing about the Bible at all.  Only Matthew makes mention of these strange travelers at all, and neither their names nor their number appear in Matthew’s simple, restrained narrative.  Of course, the tradition has given names to three of them, but this does not come from Matthew.  Yet the wise men, whether three or thirty-three, have always been favorites.  They have inspired painters and costume designers, wood carvers of crèche scenes and Christmas card designers for generations.  They also inspired one of the most beautiful Christmas stories ever written in Henry van Dyke’s, The Other Wise Man.  But what we know about Matthew’s Magi or wise men is spare and simple.  They were “from the East,” and they clearly sought to read signs in the stars.  Were they Zoroastrian priests?  Maybe.  A class of them existed who devoted themselves to the story of natural sciences, medicine, mathematics, astronomy and astrology in a pre-modern world.  Were they from Iran or Iraq or Arabia or even India?  Again, we really do not know.  Matthew shrouds this story in mystery, and as such, historical details are unimportant to him.  But this does not mean that the story of the wise men is unimportant to Matthew!

             St. Augustine said, “A person who does not travel is like a man who reads only one page of a book.”  To Matthew, their journey is of the greatest importance of all, for it is a journey that leads them to the Christ Child.

             Like all vital journeys, it is one that begins in wonder.  The wise men wonder before the mystery of the heavens.  Their wonder leads them on a journey that ends in Herod’s Jerusalem, where they consult with those who know the Hebrew Scriptures, and then to Bethlehem.  We do not know the astral event to which Matthew refers with any degree of certainty, though there are many theories as to what that star might have been, some of them plausible.  (The star is mentioned four times in Matthew’s short telling!)  But the wonder that begins their journey and leads them to King Herod and then to Micah 5:2, where the prophet tells them of Bethlehem, should not be lost upon us.  They read the stars, and Israel read the scriptures.  But note that no one in Israel followed where the Hebrew Scriptures might have led them.  Ironically, only these pagan star-gazers trust where the word from Micah will lead them!

             I don’t think you can read the Bible faithfully if you do not come to it with a sense of wonder.  Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.  He who does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.”  Einstein had a high regard for mystery and wonder.  So did these wise men, these strange travelers from the East.

             Most important to Matthew, though, is the point that they were foreigners.  They were not Jews who would know the promises of God and the Scriptures of Israel.  Matthew ends his Gospel in chapter 28 with Jesus giving the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….”  But even here at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, we see that “all nations” and “all peoples” are drawn to Jesus, the Messiah of Israel.  Even these travelers who do not know the Scriptures of Israel are drawn to Jesus and to Bethlehem.  Their wonder leads them to Jesus.  One of the few religious bumper stickers I like says, “Wise ones still seek Him.”

             The second huge word that this lovely account holds for us is worship.  When they finally get to the house (Not the stable or the manger, please note!), and they find the child (Not the infant.) with His mother Mary, they fell down and “paid Him homage.”  The King James Version and Revised Standard Version both said “they fell down and worshipped Him.”  The word in Greek was a word that could also mean to pay homage to a king, and Matthew clearly wants us to know that these mysterious travelers from the East saw Jesus as a king and worshipped Him as you would worship a god.  In Mark’s Gospel, we are told only once that Jesus is worshipped.  But in Matthew, Jesus is worshipped ten times.  This is the very first time, though, and it is not Jesus’ own Jewish people, but rather pagan star-gazers who recognize the Child Jesus as one worthy of their worship.

             Meeting Jesus does this to a person.  The church’s history confirms this.  To encounter Jesus is to be moved to worship Him, to bow down before Jesus and to pay Him homage.  By the way, the early church soon turned these Magi or wise men into “kings,” though Matthew never called them kings.  This was because of two Old Testament passages that the early church saw fulfilled in this encounter.  Psalm 72:11 says, “Yea, all kings shall fall down before Him.  All nations shall serve Him.”  And Isaiah 60:3 says, “Kings shall come to the brightness of Thy rising.”  I am not so certain Matthew would have appreciated these connections to his story of the wise men, but if the church had not tried to make that connection, we would have missed out on one of our most beloved Christmas Carols, We Three Kings!

             What Matthew does want us to know is that their worship of the Child led them to offer to Jesus gifts, or treasures of great value.  The Greek word is “theasauros,” which offers a treasure trove of words.  True worship of Christ always leads to giving, and worship is kind of empty without it.  Worship opens people up so that they want to become givers.  Grateful for who God is and mindful of what Jesus has done for us, we want to give generously.  Gold and frankincense and myrrh were their ways of expressing their wonder and love for the Christ Child.  If your worship does not lead you to grow in your giving, you are missing out on the best part of it!  “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” Jesus said.  Jesus was not just offering words; He was speaking a deep truth.  The meaning of life is found in giving ourselves, our selves and our substance, in honor of Jesus.  We are never more alive than when we are giving.  This is why Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” 

             And note finally, that their worship leads them “home by another way.”  Their worship of the Christ changes them.  They begin as wonderers and wanderers in search of adventure and truth.  But when they encounter the Christ Child, they are changed.  Along the way they have encountered Herod, the embodiment of evil and illegitimate power.  When they see and worship Jesus, they decide to head home by a road that bypasses Herod.  They know the difference between the love of power and the power of love.  They opt for love over power.  They are changed by their worship of Jesus, as we always are.

             So we will leave this place where we have gathered once again to worship Jesus as God the Son.  Let us leave today with this lovely, simple account that Matthew offers as our guide.  I suppose Fred Rogers, or Mr. Rogers, was the best known Presbyterian minister of the late twentieth century.  In 2000, Mister Rogers was interviewed by Christianity Today.  He said, “Life is deep and simple, and what our society gives us is shallow and complicated.”  Can we keep things deep and simple this year?

             Wonder… the world itself, after all, is wonderful.  Stay alert and awake!  Ask honest questions.  Seek deep and simple truth.  Wonder at the majesty of creation and the mystery of your own life.  Wonder over the beauty and the truth found in the Bible.  Let it speak a living word to you.  And above all, wonder before the Christ.  There is more truth and life yet to be found in Jesus for us all in 2014.

             Worship.  “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,” said the Psalmist.  William Temple’s definition of worship says it all!  When England was being bombed nightly, Temple as the Archbishop of Canterbury said, “This world will be saved by one thing alone, and that is worship.”  “To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.”  Or, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, “I have a plant called reverence that I water once a week.”

             And finally, head “home by another way.”  Let your worship count for something.  Let your encounter with Christ and the Scriptures change you and redirect you.  As the Psalmist put it: “Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish Thou the work of our hands upon us.  Yea the work of our hands establish Thou it.”

                                                                                     Amen.

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