Sermon: The Gift of the Wisemen

The Gift of the Wisemen
Matthew 2:1-12
RUMC January 3, 2016

               After the collapse of the old Soviet Union in 1989, two Christian missionaries answered an invitation from the Russian Department of Education to teach morals and ethics to about 100 Russian boys and girl in a government run orphanage.  Since it was close to the time of Christmas, the missionaries decided that this was the time to tell the story of the birth of the baby Jesus.  And for many of the children, this was the first time they heard how Mary and Joseph had traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem and found no room in the inn and it was in a stable where the baby Jesus was born.

After the story, there was a small craft project.  Each child was given three pieces of cardboard to make a manger and some tan felt to make the baby Jesus.  As the children worked on their project, one of the missionaries noticed the manger scene that 6 year old Misha had made.   Instead of one baby in the manger, there were two.  This was Misha’s explanation:

And when Maria laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked if I had a place to stay.  So I told him, I have no mamma and no papa, so I don’t have any place to stay.  Then Jesus told me I could stay with himBut I told him I couldn’t because I didn’t have a gift to give him like everyone else.  But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had that I could use for a gift.

I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift.  So I asked Jesus, “If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?”  And Jesus told me, “If you keep me warm, that would be the best gift anybody ever gave me.”  So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and told me I could stay with him always.

As Misha finished his story, his eyes were full of tears because he finally found someone who would stay with him forever.  And that is the real spirit of Christmas.

Our story for this morning is about Wise Men and for modern day Christians, this is more than a story meant to entertain us, but about worship.  My text is Matthew 2:1-12:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:  ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd[d] my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. 

This is the Word of God.  Thanks be to God.

Let me provide some background information that I feel will help unlock the secret of why King Herod acted the way he did.  It goes back to his childhood where he witnessed someone poison his father, killing him.  Ever since that tragic event, Herod had become paranoid of everyone and everything.  So to protect himself from some would be assassin, Herod had 10 emergency fortresses constructed all over Israel where he could escape if need be.  As a backup, he organized a network of spies to root out any challengers to his rule.

There is more.  Herod’s paranoia was so extreme that he had the following people executed for treason.

  1. His wife Miriamme,
  2. Three of his sons Alexander, Antipater and Aristobulus
  3. His brother in law Kostobar
  4. His mother in law Alexandra.
  5. His brother Phasael had escaped death from his brother only to die of natural causes.

In view of all these executions, even the emperor Augustus joked, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than son.”

So when the Wisemen arrived, Herod was old and in very poor health.  With less than a year to live, his body was racked with convulsions, his breath was foul, his skin was covered with open sores and he suffered from dementia.  Still deep down, Herod knew the end was near and it was expected that his son Archelaus would succeed him as king.  But there was something else that shook him to the core.  Visitors had arrived from the East with a strange question:

Matthew 2:2 Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?

            In typical Herodian reaction to this news; he had one more act of cruelty in him before he died:  the execution of innocent children.

But the Magi had but one purpose for their trip-to honor and worship the baby king.  Let’s skip down to verse 11.

Matthew 2:11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him.

            To an outsider, the baby Jesus did not look like a king.  He could not walk nor could he talk at this point.  Since Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus had moved out of the stable into what we believe was a rented home, it still did not look like a royal palace.  With the natural eye, Jesus looked like a typical child born into poverty.

But to the Magi, what God had confirmed in their hearts was that this child was indeed the Messiah or Maschaich who had been born, Savior of the world.  And because of that, they bowed their knee in worship.

And when we worship the Lord, we do it because it helps us see who God is and renews our spiritual lives just as sleep renews our bodies.

You see it is not enough, just to believe in the “Historical Jesus” who was the child of Mary, born in Bethlehem, lived in Nazareth, trained to be a carpenter, served as a great teacher, performed some wonderful miracles, was crucified, died and was buried.  We need to worship, not the “Historical Jesus,” but “Jesus the Son of God” who did all those things mentioned, and was raised from the dead.  You see, when we truly worship, it deepens our understanding and our relationship with God.  It breathes life into our spirits and helps us to form our identity as followers of the Lord.  Through worship, God pardons our sins, restores relationships and changes lives.

One way that I can compare the need for worship was what happened back in 1988 when three gray whales had become icebound, trapped off Point Barrow Alaska.  How many of you remember that?  For the gray whales to survive, they needed open holes in the ice to breathe.  The problem was they had become disoriented and were 5 miles from the open sea.  If you remember the news, what the rescuers did was cut a string of breathing holes about 20 yards apart in the thick ice.  And for 8 days, they slowly encouraged the whales to move from one hole to the next, mile after mile until they swam to freedom.

In a way, worship is like a string of breathing holes that the Lord provides for his people.  When we rise for air in our personal devotions or participate in church worship, it brings us into contact with the Lord.  It nurtures our spirits and helps us live right in the fear of the Lord.

For me, I need to maintain my daily and weekly connection with God through Bible reading and regular church worship.  I see them both as complimentary.  My sermons and what I have to do with this service is my work, my profession, my calling, my ministry.  My Bible reading and prayer is devotion to God.  If I do not nurture my faith, I will begin to feel distant and become dry in my spirit.  And I would say that if anyone who stays away from church or ceases to have spiritual devotions, a distance takes place.

Sunday, instead of a time to worship, has become Fun day.  1965 was the time when our country had the highest percentage–the majority of our citizens–in church on any given Sunday.  Two generations later, here on January 3, 2015, the people who now worship God are definitely in the minority.  Worship doesn’t make us better than others, but it keeps us tender towards God.

The Magi gave of themselves in worship.  It wasn’t enough for them to know that the Christ child had been born.  They had to go and experience that amazing event for themselves. It is the same thing for us. We need to make the effort to experience Christ in relationship ourselves.

The individual gifts the magi presented were chosen with care:

  • The Gold was symbolic of Jesus’ majesty for he is a king.
  • The Frankincense pointed to Jesus’s death for he is God.
  • The Myrrh alluded to Jesus’ humanity, for he is a man.

Therefore Jesus is God, King, and Man which sets him apart from all other religious leaders.

Worship is more than when we get together to sing songs or pray; it also involves that we give back to God, the other aspect of worship-the presentation of gifts.  Throughout the history of the Bible and the history of God’s people, wherever people worshipped they followed this pattern.  It is the pattern that we still use today.

Let me close.  Remember the 6 year old Russian boy, Misha?  In his worship he gave everything, essentially himself to the Lord.  May God help us in 2016 to be like the Magi in the sense that we worship in spirit and in truth.

Breathing holes in the ice.
Breathing holes in the ice.