"We Three Kings of Orient Are"[1]

MATTHEW 2:1-11

DECEMBER 30, 2012

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            We received a couple of Christmas cards in the mail yesterday.  They reminded me of the Christmas card John Davis sent  to his brother in December 1942.  It showed up forty-five years later.  John's brother said, "There is a lot of nostalgia in this thing.  I'm sorry that my brother, John, died a couple years ago.  He would have gotten a kick out of it."     

            Some of you may think that today's message on the wise men is a bit late as well.  Not Post Office late of course, but still late.  You may have already turned the calendar from Christmas to New Year's.   You may have already taken down the Christmas tree.  You may have put your nativity scene away, including your wise men figurines.  You may think it strange to still be talking about Christmas, but I think there is value in lingering just a little bit longer.

            As we turn to our passage for today I want to focus on the three main sets of characters.  First of all, there is the holy family.   Well, at least Mary and Jesus are present.  We are not sure about Joseph as Matthew does not mention him by name.  In fact, that's one of the questions we have this morning?  Was Joseph present when the wise men arrived or had he gone somewhere?

            We, have another question as well:  "How old was Jesus at the time?  A few hours old?  A few days old?  A few months old?  All Matthew tells us is, "In the time of Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem."  He's not very specific about how much time had past since Jesus' birth.  Traditionally, we have them arriving at the manger about the same time as the shepherds and angels, but Matthew says in verse eleven, "On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother."  That triggers another question:  "The house?  What house?  Whose house?  We had been lead to believe the wise men appeared at the manger, not a house.

            Because the Scriptures are so silent about much of Jesus' early life, we are left with a lot of gaps and sometimes those gaps are filled with myth and speculation.  For example, did you know that there is a village in Japan where local lore says that Jesus escaped the Romans 2,000 years ago, eventually settling in northern Japan until he died at age 106?  According to the legend, he married a woman and had three daughters.  The English text on the sign explaining the legend of the Tomb of Christ reads:

 

            When Jesus Christ was 21 years old, he came to Japan and pursued knowledge of divinity for 12 years.  He went back to Judea at age 33 and engaged in his mission. However, at that time, people in Judea would not accept Christ's preaching.  Instead, they arrested him and tried to crucify him on a cross.  His younger brother, Isukiri casually took Christ's place and ended his life on the cross.  Christ, who escaped the crucifixion, went through the ups and downs of travel, and again came to Japan.  He settled right here in what is now called Herai Village, and died at the age of 106.  On this holy ground, there is dedicated a burial mound on the right to deify Christ, and a grave on the left to deify Isukiri.  The above description was given in a testament by Jesus Christ.

 

            Some 100,000 tourists visit those two graves each year.  Just when we think we've heard everything about Jesus' missing years, a report like this one surfaces.  We wish we had more information about Jesus' childhood including the exact time frame of the wise men's visit, but we do not.  Little is known about Jesus' early family life.

            Of course, there is another main character in today's story:  King Herod.  Herod came from a long line of ruthless leaders, and when he was born the acorn did not fall far from the tree.  Herod did whatever was necessary to hold on to his power, and wouldn't stand for the slightest opposition against him.  He had his favorite wife murdered because of rumors she was unfaithful.  We're told he had nine or ten wives in all.  He killed two brothers-in-law, and three of his own sons.  There have been many Herods in history.  The allure of power is mighty and there is something about power that sometimes brings out the worst in people.

            Laszlo Tokes, the Romanian pastor whose mistreatment prompted rebellion against the Communist ruler Ceausescu, tells of preparing a Christmas sermon for the tiny mountain church to which he had been exiled.  The state police were rounding up dissidents, and violence was breaking out across the country.  Afraid for his life, Tokes bolted his doors, sat down, and read again the stories in Luke and Matthew.  Unlike most pastors who would preach that Christmas, he chose as his text the verses describing Herod's massacre of the innocents.  It was the single passage that spoke most directly to his parishioners.  Ceausescu was a modern day Herod.

            The next day, Christmas Day, news broke that Ceausescu had been arrested.  Church bells rang, and joy broke out all over Romania.  Laszlo Tokes put it this way,

 

            All the events of the Christmas story now had a new, brilliant dimension for us, a dimension of history rooted in the reality of our lives ... For those of us who lived through them, the days of Christmas 1989 represented a rich, resonant embroidery of the Christmas story, a time when the providence of God and the foolishness of human wickedness seemed as easy to comprehend as the sun and the moon over the timeless Transylvania hills. 

 

            For the first time in four decades, Romania celebrated Christmas as a public holiday.[2]  Of course, Herods are not only found in government.  They are found in offices and homes and schools and even churches.  These are people who must be in control and, they will resort to almost any tactic to stay in control.  Contrast their addiction to power to the Christian idea of God in the manger.  Who is more powerless than a baby?  Who is less in control?

            Finally, there are The Magi in our picture for today.  The Magi were wise men, of a priestly caste.  They specialized in dreams and omens, and claimed the gift of prophecy.  They bowed before the Christ child and presented him with gifts.  They gave him gold, a gift fit for a king.  They gave him frankincense.  Frankincense was the chief element in the incense burned upon the altar in the temple.  Frankincense represented Jesus' priestly role, and his role as an offering for the world.  And they gave him myrrh.  The word myrrh comes from the Hebrew mar, meaning "bitter."  The ancient Egyptians used this resin in embalming, foretelling his tragic and glorious end.

            Most importantly, for us at least, The Magi also represent the first Gentile worshipers of Jesus, providing a glimpse into the day when the gospel will spread beyond Israel into the Gentile world.  

            Beatrice Stevenson describes a Christmas she spent with her husband, Dr. Theodore Stevenson, in the mission hospital in western India.  Dr. Stevenson was a visiting surgeon at the Miraj Medical Center.  Far from home and her children, Mrs. Stevenson became a patient herself in the Miraj hospital.  The hot, dirty, smelly city made her depressed and homesick, and she felt she could never celebrate Christmas in such an alien place.  The Christmas Eve festivities at the mission hospital, however, made that Christmas one of the most memorable Beatrice had ever experienced.

            The Christian staff presented a lovely Christmas pageant, complete with live animals and even a real baby borrowed from an Indian mother in the maternity ward.  The crowd of townspeople followed the proceedings with interest.  After the usual cast of characters had gathered around the manger, and the choir sang a carol, a young woman wearing a white sari and a nurse's cap stepped onto the stage and knelt before the manger.  The nurse told the audience how she enjoyed serving the Lord as a Christian nurse.  She was followed by an Indian workman carrying a hoe, one of the maintenance staff, who mounted the platform.  This man knelt before the manger, then announced to the startled audience that he had once had leprosy and had been doomed to a life of begging.  He continued, telling how the caring Christian medical staff had treated his disease and performed surgery on his once useless hands.

            Finally, a third person stepped up.  Everyone recognized that it was a surgeon, Dr. Chopade, wearing operating room attire.  The surgeon bowed low before the manger, and then, rising to his feet, the man quietly stated that no one present knew that he had been born an "untouchable" a member of the lowest social and religious caste of that Hindu culture.  A murmur of disapproval rumbled through the audience; untouchables were not supposed to become surgeons!

            Dr. Chopade then described his wretched boyhood, in which he and his family were segregated from the rest of the village.  His widowed mother cleaned latrines to support the family, and young Chopade searched the garbage heaps for food.  He told how he was prohibited from attending the village school or even using the village well. Some angry voices in the audience shouted that he had only experienced what he deserved as an untouchable.

            The surgeon quietly continued, telling about his encounter with a kind mission doctor, who had inspired Chopade to become a doctor himself.   With the help of missionaries, he finally graduated from college and medical school.  He told in simple language that he felt he wanted to serve the Lord and his people, and he became a Christian and a surgeon at Miraj.  Gazing out on the now silent audience, Dr. Chopade stood immobile for a time.  Then, putting his palms together in the traditional Indian greeting, this noted Indian surgeon from the untouchables turned again to the manger. Bowing his head, he murmured, "Thank you, thank you, Lord Jesus."

            And that is our prayer.  Thank you, thank you, Lord Jesus.  Thank you for one last chance to ponder the blessed memory of Mary and Joseph and their child.  And thank you for reminding us that our world still suffers its Herods.  And thank you, for reminding us God came into the world to love untouchables like us.  Thank you, thank you, Lord Jesus.


[1] Thanks to King Duncan and his sermon "A Misplaced Holy Day" for much of the material in this message

[2] Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1995), pp. 394.