“TRACKING A STAR”

SERIES: “ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH”

MATTHEW 2:1-12 

DECEMBER 27, 2009

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             I don’t want to be the Grinch who stole Christmas this morning, but nevertheless, look with me once again at verse 11.  I want us to note a couple of things.  First, note where the wise men entered ... “On entering the house.”   Wait a minute.  Wait a minute.  That must be a misprint.  I mean, right below me here, in our nativity scene, we have them at the stable in Bethlehem.  What source should we trust the Bible or our nativity scene?  If we can’t trust the reliability of our nativity scene, who or what can we trust?

            Well, I hate to undermine years of holiday tradition, and you might want to cover your ears and hum if you don’t want any of those traditions to change, but the wise men did not find Jesus in the manger.  In fact, it may have been close to two years after Jesus birth that they finally arrived.  Consider Matthew’s exact words, “On entering the house, they saw the child ...” not the “baby,” but “the child.”  Furthermore, given Herod’s subsequent order to kill all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years and under, we get the sense that it took awhile for them to arrive in Bethlehem, probably not two years, but at least a few months.”

            As a quick aside, let me say something about Herod.  He’s the villain in the narrative, and rightfully so after killing all those children, but If we look at facts and figures, "Herod the Great" had a pretty good administration.  He had been the king of Judea for 40 years before Christ was born.  He had kept the order, and he had developed an extensive building program throughout the country—including some incredible improvements to the temple that put him in good standing with the religious leaders.  Of course, to pay for all this building, Herod taxed the people severely.  But in the times when they almost starved to death, he gave them some food. 

            Rome was also grateful to Herod, because he kept the peace and paid tribute to Rome.  That was pretty much Herod's job: to help Judea live with the fact that she was under the control of an occupying army.  It wasn't the way they wanted it to be, but Herod was there to help them cope.

            In other words, things were secure under Herod. That's one of the reasons he was called "Herod the Great."  The problem was that Herod didn't feel all that secure personally.  He was so paranoid of losing power that he murdered everyone who even had the opportunity to betray him, including his own mother, Merame, his wife, Alexandria, and three of his four sons.  So, that’s why Herod murdered all the small children of Bethlehem when the wise men showed up in town, asking, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?"

            Earlier I had said I wanted us to note a couple things in the eleventh verse.  Here’s the second thing.  Consider the rest of the verse.  “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.” 

            Note the often overlooked theological fact:  there is no mention of wrapping paper.  If there had been wrapping paper I’m sure Matthew would have included it.  He would have said something like, “And lo, the gifts were inside 600 cubits of paper.  And the paper was festooned with pictures of Frosty the Snowman.  And Joseph was going to throweth it away, but Mary saideth unto him, ‘Holdeth it!  Holdeth it!  This is nice paper!  Saveth it for next year.’  And Joseph did rolleth his eyes, and the child Jesus was more interested in the paper than the frankincense.”

            But these words do not appear in the Bible, which means that the very first Christmas gifts were not wrapped.  This is because the people giving the gifts had two important characteristics: 1) they were wise, and 2) they were men.

            As you may have observed, men are not big gift wrappers.  Men, generally, do not understand the point of putting paper on a gift just so somebody else can tear it off.  This is not just my opinion, this is scientific evidence based on a statistical survey of two guys I overheard talking.  One guy said he does wrap gifts, but as a matter of principle never takes more than fifteen seconds per gift.  He said, “No one ever had to wonder which presents  Daddy wrapped at Christmas.  They were the ones that looked like enormous spitballs.”

            The other guy said, “I also wrap gifts, but because of some defects in my motor skills I can never completely wrap them.  I can take a gift the size of a deck of cards, and put it in the exact center of a piece of wrapping paper the size of a volleyball court, but when I am done folding and taping, you can still see a section of the gift peeking out.”  He said, “Sometimes I camouflage this section with a marking pen.  If I had been an ancient Egyptian in the field of mummies, the lower half of the Pharaoh’s body would be covered only in tape.”

            “On the other hand,” he said, “if you give my wife a twelve-inch square of wrapping paper, she can wrap a C-130 cargo plane.  My wife, like many women, actually likes wrapping things.  If she gives you a gift of batteries, she wraps the batteries separately, which to me is very close to being a symptom of mental illness.  If it were possible, my wife would wrap each individual bolt.” 

            Of course, it’s not hard to figure out just where all this Christmas gift giving began.  It goes all the way back to the story of the wise men and the unwrapped gifts they brought, to the infant king, and I’m about to reveal another, nativity scene buster factoid, so you might want to cover your ears once again.  We assume it’s three wise men, because there were three gifts, gold (a gift appropriate for a king), frankincense (a sweet perfume used in temple sacrifice, appropriate for a priest), and they brought myrrh (a spice used in preparing a body after death).  The gifts foretold what Jesus would be and do, but at the time Jesus would have appreciated something from LeapFrog or Playskool much more.  Matthew, however, does not mention the number of wise men.  Somewhere along the way someone did the math: three gifts must equal three wise men, and a great tradition grew from that.  They were even given names, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazzar, though those names are never mentioned in the Bible.  Marco Polo, who was real, even told of a Persian village from which, the villagers claimed, the wise men began their journey.   All of this is legend.  There is no biblical or historical facts to back any of this up.

            So those are the two things I wanted us to note in the eleventh verse: the timeline of the wise men’s visit and the noticeable absence of wrapping paper, and since this is two days after Christmas, I assume your wrapping and unwrapping is done ... and undone ... but still, I want us to consider giving one more gift, and don’t worry we don’t need to wrap it.  I want us to make sure we’ve included Jesus in our gift-giving.  After all, it was his birthday and not ours.  Of course, this is tough to do.  Think about it.  What do you get the king of the universe?  Talk about somebody who has everything!  Well, let’s talk about it.  Since it’s his birthday we celebrated two days ago, and since we gave gifts to family members and friends, maybe we should spend a little time thinking what he would like from us.   So following in the footsteps of the wise men, let’s think about the gifts we might consider giving Jesus one or all of these three gifts. 

            First, we could give him our service.  I bet he would like that.  And the need is great.  There is a lot we could do in the name of Christ in our church and our community and our world.

            Several years ago while serving in Florida I read about another Florida church that was studying world hunger.  As they dug into the problem, they realized that, not only was hunger a “world” problem, but a local one as well.  They investigated the possibilities of what could be done in their community, Fort Myers, and the result was the establishment of a very busy soup kitchen.  It started out as the project of an adult Sunday School class then the congregation adopted it, and then they garnered broad support from the entire community.  Opportunities for service, opportunities to make a difference are out there if only we bother to look.

            And it doesn’t need to be anything major.  Service could be as simple as signing up here to make coffee one month, or clean the church for the month.  What gift of service, big or little can we bring to the child Jesus?

            A second gift we can bring, is our substance.  The wise men brought him gold, we can as well.  Unfortunately, not all do.  As followers of Christ this would seem to be automatic, but sad to say, Christmas spending, for many, is considerably more than they give to the Lord over the course of an entire year. 

            And maybe giving of our substance, doesn’t always sound as meaningful as giving our service, sort of like giving a gift card to someone rather than an actual gift we have picked out just for them, but think about what giving of our substance can do.  I wish all of you could serve on the We Care group, in charge of distributing money to worthy projects.  This past year we passed along $5,442 of the funds, and we helped a family here in our midst during a stressful time, and we had a hand in putting fifty bibles in the hands of people, we provided one hundred Thanksgiving dinners, we helped youth in North Omaha finding meaning in their lives and we helped the hungry here in Bellevue through the Food Bank.  Then, beyond our community, we trained pastors in the Sudan, and we helped provide clean drinking water poor communities around the world, and we helped set up rural women in Haiti with micro-business opportunities so they can provide for their families. People who have given of their substance in our church have been a huge help to people in the name of the Christ child.

            And finally, we can bring a gift of submission.  Generations of Christians have heard revival preachers urge, “Give your heart to Jesus.”  For some that meant walking down the aisle while “Just As I Am” played in the background.  For others it was a brief prayer saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  For all too few, it meant what it was supposed to mean ... the commitment of all that we are in humble obedience to the Christ child.

            One of our members, Pat Cluck, recommended a book to me, and I recommend it to you.  I just finished reading it.  It’s titled The Year of Living Biblically, written by a secular Jew, A.J. Jacobs.  He wrote another book, about reading through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and he’s a writer for Esquire Magazine, and he pitched this book to his editor, about following whatever the bible says for a year.  He spent the eight months of the year on the Old Testament and obeying everything it said, even some of the obscure Levitical laws, and the spent the last four months on the New Testament.  It’s humorous, and it was insightful, and I recommend it to you, if it does nothing more than raise our awareness of how much we do, indeed, live our lives in submission to God.

            You, no doubt, are familiar with the name William Booth, if not by name, then by the red kettles that have been so ubiquitous over the past few weeks.  General Booth was the founder of the Salvation Army, and he was asked the secret of his remarkable life.  He answered, “I told the Lord that he could have all that there is of William Booth.”

            Well, we have enjoyed another Christmas, a gift-giving time, and a time that we set aside to remember joyously all those who mean so much to us.  And if Jesus means anything to us at all, we will remember this too with our gifts of service, substance and submission. 

            Amen.