The gifts of Christmas

Good morning, Friends! Merry Christmas! I hope you all had a good one. I know it was a little lonely for some families. We all wish we could have been together with our loved ones. But we’re all safe, and that’s what matters.

Today is the last Sunday of the old year – the last Sunday of 2020. I know some people are eager to see the last of this year. It certainly has been different from any year that any of us have ever lived through.

We’ve had to make so many changes. We have lived through so many hardships. Our whole lives got turned upside down.

I won’t even try to list all the things we’ve gone through. The important thing is, we’re still here. We have survived this far. And with the Lord’s help, we all hope to make it.

It’s always hard to know what to talk about on the Sunday after Christmas, or on the last Sunday of the year. We think we’ve heard it all and done everything by now.

Did any of you go outside earlier this week, to look at the Christmas star?

The news was talking all about it. In case you didn’t read the news, it was a very rare conjunction or coming-together of the planet Jupiter and the planet Saturn. They came so close together, that to the naked eye, they looked like one single, extra-bright star.

You could only see it just after sundown, over toward the west. I’ve actually been watching the sky for many weeks, as Jupiter and Saturn got closer and closer to each other.

If you drew an imaginary line between them, you could see Saturn, Jupiter, the moon, and Mars, all in one line stretching right across the sky.

The ancient observers called it the heavenly dance. The stars and the planets dance across the sky together. Not many people watch the sky that carefully any more. Not many people look up, and wonder.

It was so beautiful! Jupiter and Saturn won’t come together like that again, for another 800 years. It won’t be in our lifetime! Many generations will be waiting to see it again.

I wonder what other things up in the sky we never notice, how many other dances in Heaven we never see.

Seems like I remember a Bible story about something like that. About a star that not everybody saw. It’s still close enough to Christmas, I think we could read it. Let me read to you, from Matthew chapter 2.

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 we have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. Herod called together all the chief priests and teachers of the law, and 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; or 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 the wise men had heard the king, they 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 they 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.

Matthew 2:1-12

Whenever I hear that story, I always want to ask some questions. Like, why didn’t more people notice the star? Or if they did, why didn’t they talk about it, and write it down, so we’d have a record?

Was it something like the Christmas star we saw this week? Or was it more like a shooting star? Or was it a supernova, an explosion of light, so bright you could even see it in the daytime?

Was it more of a private vision that the wise men had, a star which only they, with their years of watching the heavens, would have noticed and understood? Did they see it, way off yonder, and somehow they knew it meant, “God has a light for you?”

There’s another version of the Christmas story, of course. We read it on Christmas Eve a couple of days ago. It says that an angel appeared to some shepherds, who were out on the hillside, watching their sheep at night. The angels told them that a Savior had been born in the nearby town.

The glory of the Lord filled the sky, it says, and the shepherds were terrified. And suddenly the sky was filled with more angels, singing together, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, goodwill to all people!”

Do you think that might have been the same light the traveling wise men saw, off in the distance? From miles and miles away, could it have been so bright that the wise men thought it was a brand new star?

It was a long trip the wise men had to take. It says they came “from the East” – figure they came from Babylon to Jerusalem, that’s almost 540 miles. Even if they were making good time, it would have taken them a minimum of 2 or 3 weeks by camel to make the journey.

Have any of us ever had the holy wisdom to do anything as foolish as that? How many of us would have dropped everything, packed up our treasures, and hit the road like that, just to follow a star? Don’t know when or if I’ll ever be back – I’ll send you a post card!

They were looking for a king, so it says they went to the king’s palace in Jerusalem. Big palace, with lots of soldiers and important people standing around. That’s where you’d look for a king, right? But the new king wasn’t there. So, being strangers, they asked where the new king was.

Well, the old king was none too pleased. He hadn’t heard about any of this, and talk about a new king made him some kind of unhappy. And if the king was unhappy, the whole town was unhappy. But Herod covered it up, and he sent for his own holy men. He said, “Where’s the Savior going to be born?”

They came right back with a quotation from the prophet Micah. The book of Micah was already famous, because it talked about the Messiah:

In the last days, Micah said, the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and peoples will stream to it.

Many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”

The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.

All the nations may walk in the name of their gods, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.

OK, so they had a prophecy to tell them where to go. They knew they were looking for a king. So they lit out, and they headed for Bethlehem, which was only about 5 miles away.

When they got there – probably later that same day – the star stopped moving, which meant they’d arrived. So they looked around, and asked a few passers-by, and they found the stable.

It says in our translation that they were overjoyed. In the original Greek, it strings three words together – “joy”, “great” and “exceeding”. They were raising the roof! They had never been so happy in all their lives!

Then it says they bowed down and worshiped the newborn king. The “bowing down” part we understand – they knelt and bent down till their foreheads touched the ground.

Maybe not something we would do, but in many cultures bowing down is a gesture of complete submission. It’s like saying, “I am lower than you. I will do as you say.”

Our translation said they worshiped the baby. Some of the other translations say they paid him homage, which is a word we don’t use very much.

The word in the original is proskuneo, which means they kissed his hands. When you met a king or an important person, kissing their hand meant that you depended on them for their protection and mercy. Like bowing down, it was a gesture of complete submission.

The old word homage isn’t from the Bible, it actually comes from medieval times. When a knight or a commoner came before a king, they would kneel down before him, and pledge their allegiance while they held the hilt of the king’s sword.

The king would put his hands over the hands of the person swearing allegiance, and promise to be a good lord over them. The ceremony of homage or hommage meant that you were now the king’s man, his servant for life.

Either way you take it, the wise men probably astonished Mary and Joseph, who were just simple country people. Even though the angel had told them their baby was going to be special, they never expected strangers from the ends of the earth to show up like that.

And then, the presents they unpacked – gold, incense and perfume. These were royal gifts, the kind of gifts you’d give to a king!

The contrast of Christmas – the contrast between foreigners who saw the star and immediately understood it, and came right away, on the one hand, and the people who never looked up in the sky, never noticed the star, never understood what it meant. That contrast is what we’re talking about at Christmas.

Then there’s the contrast between Herod, the traditional king, the insanely jealous king who would kill anyone who got in his way, the contrast between Herod and Jesus, the baby king born in a stable, with no bed but a feeding trough.

That contrast, between the high and low, between the worldly power, the jealous, merciless power of Herod, and the lowliness of Jesus, the humble power, the servant power, that Jesus lived all his life. That’s what we’re talking about.

The wise men were willing to be led by a star. Joseph was willing to listen to angels, and be led by dreams. Herod, the very personification of evil, was willing to destroy all the children on the chance of killing the one child he was terrified would overthrow him.

Two different kinds of kings. Two different kinds of leaders. The wise men knew the difference. They knew who to bow down to. They knew who to worship.

They couldn’t stop Herod, or change him. But they did what they could. They listened to the dream they had, and went home by a different way, to give Jesus and his family a chance to escape, in the middle of the night.

Do you see what happens when you follow a star? You might have a long journey. You might get in trouble. But you might meet a king, who turns out to be the Lord.

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