Good morning, Friends!
I hope you all had a merry Christmas! Did Santa bring you anything fun or special this year?
This whole business of gifts at Christmas time is really interesting. Some families open their presents at midnight on Christmas Eve.
Our family opens our stockings as soon as we get up, then we have breakfast, then we open our presents during the morning. Presents get opened one by one, and then they get passed around and admired.
I’ve known a few families who celebrate 12 days of Christmas – everybody gets twelve presents. They open one on Christmas Day, and then one more each day till January 6th or Epiphany. That’s where we get that song about the 12 Days of Christmas, with the partridge in the pear tree and everything.
You see, way back in the early Christian church, somebody decided that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary on March 25th, or Annunciation Day. That was the day of the big announcement.
So, counting forward nine months from March 25th, they figured Jesus had to have been born on December 25th, which is how we got the date for Christmas.
But back in the old days, people didn’t have leap year on their calendar. The earth takes just a little bit more than 365 days to make it around the sun, so today we add in an extra day every fourth year to make the calendar come out right. But by the time people figured this out in the Middle Ages, the calendar was 11 days out of whack.
So, they re-set the calendar in 1580, and they simply cut out those 11 days that had crept in. But not everybody agreed to the change. That means that some Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th, like we do, but other Christians who didn’t accept the calendar change celebrate Christmas on January 6th.
Here in North Carolina up in the mountains, there are still some people who celebrate what they call “Old Christmas” that day.
But the whole business of Christmas gifts goes back to the Scripture we’re reading today. It goes back to the wise men who brought gifts to Jesus. Here’s how the story goes.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When Herod had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod called the wise men secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, the wise men went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.
When the wise men saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.
Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
When the wise men had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” the angel said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”Matthew 2:1-15
So that’s why we have the wise men, and that’s why we give gifts at Christmas.
It doesn’t tell us who the wise men were, or how many of them came to Bethlehem. The tradition that’s grown up over the years says that there were three of them, and people even invented names for the three wise men: Gaspar, Melchior and Balshazzar.
But really, the Bible doesn’t say anything about any of them. We don’t know where they came from. It just says they came from “the East”, which could mean anything from India to Iran, from Afghanistan to Arabia. Here in North Carolina, any place we’ve never been to, people call “yonder”. So, the wise men came from yonder.
Tradition says that they were kings, but we don’t even know that, either. The reason we call them kings is because of a line from the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament, where it talks about the Messiah and says, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. . .” (Isaiah 60:3)
The word that’s actually used to describe them is magi, which means wise men, or to be really accurate, it means astrologers. They watched the sky at night, and they charted the stars and the movements of the planets.
Astrologers were greatly in demand back then, because people believed that the stars predicted all the great changes in the world – wars and famines, the rise and fall of rulers, things like that.
So, for the astrologers to see a new star in the sky was a really big thing. A bright star, a really noticeable star, meant the birth of a really important new ruler.
It doesn’t tell us how the new star looked, whether it was bigger or brighter than all the ordinary stars. Some people say it must have been a comet, or a meteor, or even a supernova that would have outshone all the others and been visible even in daylight.
I’ve sometimes thought that the Christmas star was a small star, because there’s no hint in the Bible that anybody else saw it. If it had been so big and so special and lit up the sky, wouldn’t everyone have followed it to Bethlehem? As it was, only a handful of foreign astrologers paid any attention to it.
A couple of weeks ago in my Sunday message, I threw out the idea that when we look outside at night, all of the same stars that were there in Jesus’ time are still shining up in the sky. We can look up at the sky, and see the exact same stars that shone over Bethlehem.
In fact, it never says anywhere in the Bible, that the star that led the wise men to Jesus ever went away. For all we know, that start is still shining. Maybe that special star is still there, every night, trying to lead us to the Prince of Peace.
Herod, the king of Israel in today’s story, was a really unbalanced and dangerous person. He was a powerful king, and he did a lot of building, including roads and acqueducts and a huge new Temple in Jerusalem. But to do all that building and to live in luxury himself, Herod raised taxes to an almost unbearable level. People lost everything they had, and many people in Israel were slaves.
Herod was capricious, and paranoid, and ruthless. He had two of his wives executed, because he was insanely jealous and thought they were cheating on him. Herod even had some of his own children killed, because he thought they were plotting to take over his kingdom.
Herod had a bunch of Jewish rabbis – teachers – and their students executed, because they protested against the pictures and statues of Roman gods in their country. The rabbis said this was against the Ten Commandments, and tore the pictures and statues down. Herod didn’t want the Romans to think things were getting out of control, so he rounded up the rabbis and all their students and had them killed, too.
So, think about what Herod’s reaction was going to be, when these wise men from yonder show up, talking about a new star and the birth of a new king. How was he going to react? It says in today’s reading that Herod was “disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”
Translated out of Bible-speak, that means Herod went clean off his rocker. Insanity doesn’t even begin to cover the situation. Everyone in the capital was terrified. A guy who would murder his own family wouldn’t hesitate to order a massacre.
The other thing the story talks about the gifts the wise men brought – gold, frankincense and myrrh. I read a Bible scholar once that said the gifts were symbols: you bring gold to honor a king, you bring incense to honor a priest, and the myrrh was a symbol of the spices Jesus would be buried in.
One thing that really stands out in the story, is that the wise men didn’t know exactly where they were going, and they weren’t sure what they were going to find when they got there. They didn’t know the way. They didn’t have a map. All they had was just one star.
It doesn’t say what they did on cloudy nights. Maybe they just kept on, in the same direction, trusting that the star would be there the next night to guide them. The wise men were really on a journey of faith. They knew they might lose their way, or look ridiculous.
They only knew that the star was leading them to a new king, to a king who would be unlike any of the other rulers the world had ever known.
One way to bring this story home is to ask, “What star do we follow?” I think that each of us has our own special star, whether it’s one we’ve chosen ourselves, or a star which God has shown us. Some people follow a star called success, or money. Some follow a star called fame or power. People follow all kinds of stars. And not all stars lead to Jesus.
What is really obvious, though, is that the wise men saved Jesus’ life, and probably the lives of his parents as well.
The wise men were not foolish. They had traveled through many countries, and they recognized what kind of a person Herod was. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to recognize insanity in a leader.
All Herod cared about was power, and praise, and his own survival. He cared about money, and he was totally ruthless. Anyone who Herod thought raised the slightest, most unlikely threat to his power, he was going to crush and kill.
The wise men saw right through Herod. They weren’t stupid. So, when Herod told them that he wanted to come and worship the newborn king, too – well, they saw the writing on the wall.
They nodded, and smiled, and they got out of town as quickly as they could. They watched the rear view mirror to make sure they weren’t being followed. And when they finally found Jesus, and gave him their gifts, I’m certain they told Joseph and Mary what they’d seen back in Jerusalem.
And then it says they left town, and went home by another way.
They brought Jesus gifts. But really, they saved Jesus’ life. And that’s a big reason we still honor the wise men today.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus got up in the middle of the night, and fled with just the clothes they were wearing. They left their home in Nazareth, and whatever goods they had. It could be that the wise men’s gifts were what paid their way on the escape route.
There was a very large colony of Jews who lived in Egypt at that time, and the refugees would have been able to blend in and disappear among them. Maybe they found relatives to stay with, or maybe the wise men’s gifts helped to set them up in a new home.
Maybe the gifts paid for Jesus’ education. Remember the story about when Jesus was a boy, how his parents took him to Jerusalem, and all the rabbis were astonished that this kid knew so much.
Or maybe Jesus’ parents saved the wise men’s gifts, and that’s what Jesus used to support himself when he left his home years later and started to teach and preach and heal. He could have been using the gifts that had been brought to him so long ago by the visitors from the East.
We may love the people we give presents to at Christmas. But we may never know where and how those gifts will be used, or who will be blessed by them. The gifts we give may be needed now, or they may bless generations to come, or strangers we never knew.
As we put away our decorations, and store up our Christmas memories, and integrate all our gifts into our daily lives, let’s remember the wise men and the reason we give gifts to each other. They were honoring Christ, and showing their love for the newborn king.
Josh, you did it again! Why am I so surprised when most of your messages (especially the ones I don’t get to listen in person) bring a different slant on stories I have known since childhood. Thank you for making the magi at Christmas appear as dedicated down-to-earth men of faith and for describing Herod in terms that are scarily understandable. Wish my health situation would allow me to be at Springfield more often. I am always there in thought.