As the wise men were guided by the star of Bethlehem, may we be guided by your Word made flesh in Christ. Amen.
SCRIPTURE LESSON Matthew 2:1-12
2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘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 my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 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.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, 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.
THE JESSE TREE The Star of Bethlehem
A significantly different star appeared, and certain men in the East saw it. John McArthur says they were “Magi, magicians or astrologers-- possibly perhaps even Zoroastrian wise men from Persia whose knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures could be traced back to the time of Daniel.” (from John McArthur’s One Volume Commentary) They interpreted this star to mean that a new king had come. They felt a desire, a calling even, to follow that star and find the king. They brought gifts with them: gold to honor a king, frankincense as a priest would offer to God, and myrrh used for both healing and embalming. All three were precious gifts; they gave of their best. They made the long difficult pilgrimage to a foreign land, because they sensed this one would be important to the whole world; they came to meet and to worship him.
As they came closer to where the star seemed to indicate, they continuously made inquiries seeking a new king. Of course this was most disturbing to Herod the Great, the first of the Herodian dynasty whose reign over the Jewish territories was sanctioned by Rome. He governed Judea, Samaria, Galilee and more outlying areas. When the Magi’s search reached his ears, he summoned the religious and scholarly leaders among the Jews to put a location on the promise of the Messiah. The answer was Bethlehem. The original quote from Micah 5 goes on to say that the Messiah born in Bethlehem, who comes from ancient times, will be a Shepherd for his people and will be one of peace. Jesus fulfills all of that prophecy. Of course, as King Herod sent them on their way to “search diligently for the child,” supposedly so that he could also worship him; Herod’s real intent was harm, to eliminate a potential rival to the throne. (Matt.2:8)
The Magi continued following the star which led them to a house where Mary and Joseph were caring for the young Jesus. We don’t know the exact time of their arrival; some speculate as long as two years later, some only a few days or weeks. Biblically their story is separate from that of the shepherds. We do know the family was still in Bethlehem, but not for long. The Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they returned home by a different route. Joseph was warned in a dream to take the family to Egypt until the massacre of the innocents ended along with Herod’s reign of terror.
In his Christmas/Epiphany meditation on this story from Matthew 2, John Maxwell asks what happens “When You Follow A Star and Find A Stable.” (in One Holy Night, p. 2ff) While the designation of stable is a bit out of place (Matthew says house), there is still this concept that an infant in a humble home is not what the Magi might have anticipated when they set out to follow that star. It’s not just that this happened to the Magi long ago, but it happens to us all the time. We set out for something grand, whether it’s an event to attend, a special time in our lives, someone we always wanted to meet, or something we want to accomplish, sometimes the result is less than we hoped. Maxwell asks this critical question, “How is your conduct affected by the outcome of your expectations?” (p. 4)
Let’s look at the Wise Men for our example. They believed that star would lead them to an important king. Maxwell suggests “they were expecting a mansion or a royal court. They even stopped at King Herod’s palace to find out about this star and this child who was to be born.” (p. 5) What they found in Bethlehem was a young child in his mother’s arms in a modest house in a small town. Nothing about this scene looked at first glance like a king. Given a carpenter dad and very young mom in this humble setting, Jesus probably didn’t look like either a king or a prince to them. Then again, in his 30s, as Jesus began his public ministry, this itinerant teacher still didn’t look like a king or a prince. His miracles and teaching may have caused some to take seriously the possibility that he might be the Messiah, but for many more, this was not the kind of Messiah they expected or wanted. This soft spoken, kind-hearted teacher/preacher didn’t sound like the military leader they hoped would lead a revolt and free them from the Roman Empire.
How did the Magi respond to the surprise? They didn’t complain to God that this was not what they expected. They didn’t turn away, take their gifts and go home. They didn’t heave a heavy sigh and awkwardly stumble through a polite greeting. No! Without hesitation they knelt before this child in an attitude of homage and worship, and they presented the precious gifts they had so carefully chosen and carried such a distance. They did exactly what they had planned to do to honor a king. It didn’t matter that the king wasn’t quite like their preconceived notions. They trusted that this was indeed the king indicated by the star, and they still trusted in the importance of the event. Then being warned that this child was in danger, because of their prior conversation with King Herod, they chose to protect the child by avoiding Herod’s questions and returning another way.
I suspect there are times when Jesus isn’t quite what you expected either. We can’t wrap our human minds around this fully human/fully divine thing. Sometimes humanity has leaned one direction or the other, but it’s hard to find the balance of God wrapped in human flesh who came to dwell among us. We have a hard time accepting God’s love and mercy for us, because we think we have to do or be something significant to earn the privilege of this relationship or to be worthy of all God offers us through Christ and Holy Spirit. Mary Marthas read the perfect line for that in The Story yesterday, “Salvation is not based on a list of what we do to make God happy and what we won’t do because it is against the rules…The solution to the problem, way back in the first century, was not a “What” but a “Who.” (Max Lucado & Randy Frazee, The Story: Leader’s Guide, p. 149) In one way or another, Jesus often surprises us; he doesn’t fit some of our preconceived ideas about God or salvation.
Life can be surprising or disturbing in other ways as well. Things that looked promising go sideways. We work hard for something, but the opportunity falls through. Jobs or relationships turn out to be not as perfect as we had hoped. Retirement dreams hit a hard reality because of the stock market or a health issue. Along life’s way we make mistakes, or circumstances change, and we don’t always get what we expect. That was a theme last week with Joseph, too.
How should we respond to these unexpected twists and turns in life? First, I like what Maxwell says, with regard to an appropriate attitude. “Strong Christians see God in both the good and the bad. The mature believer sees God not only in pleasures and palaces, but also in the barnyards and stables of life.” (p. 8, 13)
Second, look at the example of the Wise Men:
- accept that God is at work in this situation,
- bow to God with respect and worship,
- go ahead and offer your gifts in God’s service.
Maxwell writes, “The beautiful part of the Christmas story of the wise men is what they do when they come to that stable. …I believe that all wise men throughout the ages have done these three things when they come…to a place or situation that isn’t exactly what they were expecting.” (p. 11) He goes on to talk about these three significant responses:
- They Look for God,
- They offer their very best to God,
- They change their direction.
Looking for God, that’s finding the Romans 8:28 in the situation. “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.” It’s asking in the midst of this bad news, what is God doing? It’s Joseph of the Old Testament saying, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” (quoted p. 12) It’s Job after losing everything saying, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21) It’s David writing the 23rd Psalm while hiding in a cave from his adversaries. It’s Paul writing from prison the encouragement found in his letter to the Philippians. When life does not work out the way you hoped, dreamed, or planned, look for God at work in the midst of or in spite of what did happen.
Offering our best is the opposite of our human inclination when life doesn’t go the way we want. Instead we are inclined to hold back, to not give anything, at least not our very best. Our brain says, “Oh, this isn’t right. Well, maybe I’d better hold on to this. Maybe I shouldn’t try so hard. What if the situation gets worse; I may need this.” Maxwell talks about his own practice of the “mirror” test, to every day look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Am I giving my very best in the situation that I’m in?” (p. 15) Whether your life in that moment is filled with problems or prosperity, it is in every case a good question to ask.
What about changing direction? We don’t like change. But we need change. When something isn’t going right, something needs to change. You can’t continue in the same behavior if you are expecting a different result. It doesn’t work that way. Sometimes you need to make a change to break an addiction or be healthier, to be more faithful regarding environmental issues. It’s a choice you make for a better life. Sometimes change is thrust upon you because of circumstances beyond your control. But change is not necessarily a bad thing even if it is a difficult thing for us to adapt. The birth of Jesus changed everything and invites us to change as well.
None of us can fully predict what 2020 will bring into our lives. Your expectations now may be like following the star of your dreams and aspirations. Things may not go as you hope. There will be some detours and some unexpected twists. Not all of them will be pleasant. The goal is not to go through the year unscathed or unchanged. You may think that sounds like your wish, but we know reality will offer some challenges. What do we do then? How should the faithful respond when following a star or any other sign of God leads us to a humble place rather than a grand promise? Learn from the Wise Men of the Epiphany story.
- Look for God in every circumstance.
- Give your best to God at all situations.
- Be willing to change direction when God leads you a new way.