I do hope that you have had a good Christmas. Indeed this is a special time of year. Really there is no other part of the calendar that compares to this season. Even Easter does not compare with Christmas. The music evidences that. Part of the reason everyone loves Christmas is because it is filled with such good music.
But Christmas is not always filled with happy emotions. Statistics show that most suicides occur during this time of the year.
Christmas is an emotionally charged holiday. And it has always been like that. Even from the very first Christmas.
The passage we look at tonight also contains an emotion mixed message. On the one hand it declares the good news of Christ’s Advent. But on the other hand it declares the bad news of Christ’s advent.
You’re probably asking “What do you mean by that?” Well, you have to remember something about the book of Matthew. Matthew was a Jew, and he was writing to his countrymen. So when you read this book you have to put yourself in the shoes of a Jew. And when you do that, you may begin to see how the message of Christmas is a mixed one.
If you put yourself in the shoes of a Jew and you read verses 1-2 you might begin to feel uneasy. Let me suggest a theme for these two verses that might help to put things in perspective. We might summarize the theme of these verses like this: The nations (i.e. foreigners) enjoy the privileges that rightfully belong to the Lord’s covenant people.
As members in this church you are entitled to special privileges. You get to worship and hear the Word of God. You get to vote when the opportunity presents itself. You are entitled to the special care and oversight of the elders. All these things are your privileges if you are a member of this church.
But suppose you come to find someone enjoying those privileges in your place. You probably wince at the thought.
The same idea is portrayed in this passage. We think of the Christmas story as filled with warm-fuzzies. But that is not the original intent of this passage. This passage was designed to provoke God’s people.
Perhaps we can see that more vividly as we examine the details of the passage. Let’s look at what privileges these foreigners enjoyed. The first privilege we see this that …
I. The revelation of the Messiah’s advent comes to the foreigners
That is to say, these Maji, these foreigners of all people, hear about the Messiah’s advent first. They hear about it before the Jews do.
It would be one thing to say that these foreigners are the recipients of special revelation. The Ninevites were recipients of revelation, weren’t they? And you can think of many other prophets who delivered messages to foreign kings. And even today, we can think of many people outside of the church who hear the preaching, and receive God’s revelation that way. But in all these situations those outside the church (or Israel) received the message second hand. The message first came to the prophet or preacher. Israel (or the church) was the conduit.
But these Maji are unique because they received this revelation before the Jews. Or maybe it would be better put, they received the message without the Jews.
So here you have people who are way out of the loop when it comes to being a part of the people God has covenanted with. But they are the ones who enjoy the privilege of hearing from God about the Christ child.
Perhaps this is God’s way of saying the covenant people are no longer his people. All through history he has spoken to them, but they had not listened. Now he speaks to someone who will.
And that is part of the gospel of Christmas. God has and is speaking to us right now. “We who were far off, without hope and without God in this world, have been brought near.” What the Jews had neglected has come to us.
Whenever someone dies, that person’s possessions are bequeathed to another. You could say that we are the beneficiaries of the Jew’s deadness. We now enjoy the special privilege that once belonged to them. The Word of Christ and his advent has been spoken to us.
And we must never forget how great a privilege that is. And we must remember that we now assume the position of the Israelites of old.
The good news of our enjoying their special privilege also caries with it a warning: Should we become stagnate in our zeal for the Lord, we may fall under the same punishment. If we fail to appropriate the word of God, the special privilege we have of being the ones God speaks to by his Word and Spirit can be stripped from us. God does not guarantee that it is ours forever and without any conditions. Once we fail to serve as caretakers of God’s word, God will find another to fill our places.
That the nations enjoy the special privileges of the covenant people is not only evidenced in the fact that God speaks to them, but it is also manifested in that the Lord speaks through them.
II. The revelation of the messiah’s advent comes through the foreigners to the covenant people.
Now that we have considered that first point, don’t you find it odd that the foreigners are the ones who announce to the Jews in Jerusalem that their long awaited Messiah has come?
I want you to think about how God orders this. To understand the full impact of this we need to consider the star that the Maji followed.
All sorts of ink has been spilled trying to pin down what exactly this star is. Scholars have debated it ever since it appeared. Some have said that it must have been a super nova (A super nova is a star that explodes). The immense amount of energy that would have been emitted in that catastrophe would have produced a light in the sky that shined day and night for weeks. A problem with that theory though is that Herod doesn’t seem to know anything about it. He asks the maji about the star and when it appeared. In other words, the maji are the only ones who were able to see it.
Other hypotheses have also been submitted, such as a conjunction of planets or a comet (that’s what John Calvin supposes). The problem with those theories is that the star stops. It comes to stand right over Jesus’ house. And that is the way the Maji know where to go.
For these reasons some have even said that the star wasn’t a natural phenomena. They supposed that it was a heavenly messenger. In the Book of Revelation Jesus is said to hold the seven stars of the churches in his hand. These seven stars we take to mean the seven men who act as messengers within the church (or the pastors). Some interpret the star that way, the star was a messenger from God (or an angel). This theory has something going for it. It would help us to understand why the wise men were so eager to follow the star: If a messenger of God appeared to the wise men and told them what was happening they might be more willing to pack up and go.
Those theories are somewhat fun to think about (at least to me!). But I think they miss the point. I’m not so much concerned about what the star is, I think it is more fascinating what the star does. It leads them to Jerusalem and then hides. I bet the wise men are thinking, “OK we are here. We just need to find out which house he is in.” So they go around town saying, “Where is the one who is born the king of the Jews.”
Maybe you have read this before and thought that they just needed directions. Well, I bet that is what they were doing. But I don’t think they needed directions. Once they step outside the gates of Jerusalem, what happens? “POP” out comes the star again. And it leads them right to the door of Jesus’ house.
No, these guys didn’t need directions to Bethlehem. God intentionally guided them to Jerusalem. And he guided them there so that they would serve as his messengers. Whether or not the wise men were cognizant of it or not, their question wasn’t an inquiry. It was an announcement. They were bringing the message of Christmas to the Jews.
Odd, isn’t it? The Jews were supposed to be God’s covenant people. As God’s people they were supposed to be God’s “emissaries to the world.” They were to declare to the nation God’s ways and his redeeming love. But here we have the exact opposite. The foreign nations become the evangelists. The Jews become the ones who were evangelized.
The covenant people are stripped of their special privilege as God’s witnesses. And perhaps that is why all Jerusalem was troubled.
If the gospel no longer is no longer declared by us, and is declared to us, the gospel no longer becomes “good news” to us. If the privilege of being God’s witnesses is stripped from us, when we hear that the king is coming or has come, it is to us no longer a message of grace. It is a message of judgment and death.
If we fail to serve as God’s agents in the world to the world, he goes out and gets someone else who will speak. And when the gospel comes round to be preached to us through them, it is a signal that God is no longer using us. It would be then a sign that He has rejected us.
No doubt we see many churches today that have lost the gospel fire. They no longer promote Christ as the only Savior from sins. And this is a great mystery. Those churches that started out as the ones God used for revival early in American history. By this I am thinking of the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings. But now many of those denominations have come to believe that Christ is not the only Savior (if a savior at all). Their understanding of missions has transformed from proclaiming salvation in Christ to helping societies with poverty. While there is nothing wrong with trying to help people economically, it is a far cry from helping them eternally.
In our day we are finding these “churches” open mission fields. The message of Christmas, the message of Christ coming into this world to save sinners, is coming to them. It is a sign that God’s judgment is coming. They must listen to the gospel call before time runs out.
And the same is true for us. The gospel call is alive and well. The Jews were faithful in attending church, yet they needed the gospel preached to them through agents of God. They needed to be awakened to the fact that they needed a living and active faith. So too, we must not think that our being a part of a church alone will save us. Only living faith will save us.
I’m notorious around home for eating anything and everything that is not pinned down. I like to eat. And my family knows that they can’t leave any sweets out without proper notification. If one of my girls happens to have a doughnut and they carelessly leave it on the counter, most likely, I’m going to come along and scarf it down.
That is to say, if they do not take care to possess that blessing that has been bestowed upon them, then they may come to find that I will enjoy it in their place.
I want you to understand that this is exactly what is being communicated here in this passage about Christ. The Savior, Jesus Christ, is a glorious treasure. The word of God is more precious than gold or silver. Each are gifts that God gives for your eternal enjoyment. They are blessings that God graciously bestows upon you.
And if you do not actively embrace them and possess them with a living faith, then you will find that one day they will be gone. If tepid indifference comes to be found in the place of a full blooded zeal, you should not be surprised if one day you find someone else enjoying your place in the kingdom to come.
Matthew wrote this as a reminder to his fellow countrymen. On the one hand it was a glorious reminder that the Lord was patient. He was still extending his hand to his people, offering them life and salvation. But at the same time, it was a sobering reminder that His patience would not last forever.
And the message is the same for us. This passage is a glorious reminder of God’s infinite grace: Christ has been born in Bethlehem. He has condescended to become the savior of sinners. And we must grasp on to it heartily, before time runs out.
Kindled Fire is dedicated
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.