I hope you are not quite ready to put Christmas away. After all, it is only the 30th, the sixth day of Christmas. Perhaps by this sixth day, Mary and Joseph have found room in the inn. In only two more days, they will present Him for circumcision in the temple in Jerusalem, a distance of six miles, so perhaps they are already on their way there.
Our Christmas traditions extend beyond the night of the birth, for our nativity scenes generally include the three wise men, who undoubtedly showed up much later, when Jesus was living in a house as a child. We know that Herod’s horrific slaughter of the innocents included all male children two years old and under in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi that the star appeared [Matthew 2:16], so it is not unlikely that the Magi visited as much as two years after the angels sang.
We are only five days later. Don’t be in a hurry to put Christmas away.
We have heard about the “three wise men” all our lives. Nothing in scripture says that there were three. Your version may call them “wise men” as a translation of the word Magi, but nothing in the original Greek says that they were “wise” or, for that matter, that they were “men.” The Carthaginian writer Tertullian, called the “father of Western theology” by some, was the first to postulate, sometime early in the third century, that they were kings, but of course the Bible does not call them kings. By the sixth century, the extrabiblical text known as the Armenian Gospel of the Infancy had named them Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar, but of course those names also do not appear in holy writ.
We do know that they were from the east, that they were called the Magi and thus were astrologers or magicians or sorcerers or some other students of the extraordinary, that they saw a star, and that they brought gifts. And because we know our scripture, we know too that they received a gift, for no worshiper of Jesus leaves empty.
The great American short story writer O. Henry published “The Gift of the Magi” in 1905. In this story, a poor couple each desperately tries to decide how to give the other a secret Christmas present that neither can afford. Having little of value, the husband Jim pawns his watch to buy an assortment of ornamental combs for his wife, whose beautiful head of hair he has admired since they first met. His wife, Della, has cut and sold her hair to buy him a platinum fob chain for his watch. Now, neither can use the gifts, but the irony of the story is how their sacrificial giving demonstrates how priceless love really is.
Today, we hear this strange story of Eastern visitors.
[You may listen the audio of the sermon from this point forward here.]
In 1951, NBC debuted a new program, the Hallmark Hall of Fame, with the first opera ever written for television. It was Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Telling the story of the travels of the Magi before they arrived at the manger, the opera is set in the home of a crippled boy named Amahl and his mother who live on the road to Bethlehem. Amahl has been a shepherd but is likely heading to a life reduced to begging because of his disability. He has a reputation, much like the boy who cries “wolf,” of telling exaggerated, cock-and-bull fish stories, so when he reports to his mother a miraculous star and later the arrival of three splendidly dressed kings, even his mother is slow to believe him until she meets them herself. Telling the kings how his mother has had to sell their sheep, Amahl is given some candy by King Gaspar. In the night, his mother attempts to steal some of the gold they have brought for the newborn king of the Jews, but the page, the kings’ servant, catches her red-handed. When Amahl defends his mother, King Melchior says that she may keep the gold, as she needs it more than the Christ child, who will have no requirement for earthly wealth. With sudden understanding of who has come into her world melting the lines of regret on her face, the mother gives the gold back, asking the kings please to give it to the baby who is what she has awaited her whole life. Amahl, wishing to add to the gifts of the Magi, gives the only thing he has, his crutch. When he gives it to the kings, he is miraculously healed, and he leaves with them to give the baby his crutch himself.
The Gift of the Magi indeed.
You have heard sermons before about the word “Magi” and what it implies. They were astrologers, philosophers, scholars, magicians. The word has negative connotations in some uses, neutral or positive in others. Whatever their occupation, education, or hobbies, Matthew makes several things clear. Remember, Matthew is writing his gospel to a Jewish audience, and he introduces the visit of these strangers to challenge some basic, long-held Jewish ideas. The Magi were foreigners, from the land of Jethro and Job. They were outcasts; neither Gentiles nor astrologers were on the approved list, and for them to be a part of the Messiah’s story is rather shocking. Their gifts indicate that they are wealthy, although perhaps “sacrificial” is a better term. Their long trip indicates that they are determined, although “inspired” may be the better term. They come with only two purposes – to worship and to give. From them, we learn a lot.
Paul tells us that the cross brings us near to God:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ…. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens but fellow citizens with God’s people…. [Ephesians 2:13,19]
Do not miss Matthew’s message here – Jesus’s birth starts this process that culminates at the cross – the visit of the Magi begins the course of bringing those who were far away near to Christ.
I want to offer three simple points to you as we look at this story. 1. Look for the signs. 2. Worship the Christ who has entered your world. 3. Bring Him your gifts.
First, Look for the signs.
This star … Who knows what it is. A comet? A supernova? The confluence of Saturn and Jupiter? A supernatural entry into the cosmos as a message from God that is as unique as the handwriting on the wall before Daniel and King Belshazzar? Does it really matter? The Magi see this star and come to Jerusalem, and then it appears to them a second time to lead them to where Jesus is. They have enough sense to follow it.
It is important that they ask only where the king has been born, not if the king has been born. They are already aware. They know how to read the signs.
It should not be missed that God sends a star to astrologers. They are, after all, stargazers. You may not get a star. Your sign may come in a book or in a song or in a flower. Your sign may come through meditation or prayer or conversation or sermon. The recognition of the Messiah comes to Nathanael, who thinks Nazarenes have nothing to offer, when Jesus tells him he had seen under a fig tree [John 1:48-49] and to the oft-married woman at the well when Jesus recites her marital history [John 4:19, 29]. To the fisherman Peter, the recognition of the deity of Christ is revealed through a miraculous catch of fish. [Luke 1:5-9] It is not original with me to tell you that God speaks to you in a language you can understand, meeting you where you are. I love movies, and if you have read my blog, you know that I see the gospel in movie scripts where most people do not. I doubt seriously that George Nolfi intended what I get out of the movie “The Adjustment Bureau,” and Christopher Nolan almost certainly did not write “Interstellar” as the three-act passion play that I see it to be. God speaks to me through movies, in a way He may not speak to you. Stargazers get stars.
French poet Charles Beaudelaire wrote:
The whole visible universe is but a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform. [“Salon of 1859,” sect. 3, in Curiosités Esthétiques (1868; reproduced in The Mirror of Art, ed. by Jonathan Mayne, 1955]
God speaks to astrologers through a star. That is not surprising. God has told us in the Psalms: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you.” [Psalm 32:8]
What is surprising is the completeness of their reaction. Leaving home, traveling to a hostile king, finding strangers because a star tells them to. At the end of the day, discovering that God is speaking is not the hard part. What you do about it is where the rubber meets the road.
If the Magi are really wise men, they would be tempted to rely on their wisdom. Whether they are wise or not, they are subject to the same inclinations we all have – to rest on what makes sense, what we can measure, what we can see. For them, perhaps their comfort zone is philosophy or magic tricks to which only they know the secrets. Whatever, they have the maturity and the depth to recognize the holy entry into their world, not to rely on what they can comprehend on their own, and to follow the star.
Paul tells us that the good news is “not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” [1 Corinthians 2:4-5] This kind of following requires humility, for as long as we are on the throne of our own lives, we will never accept the idea that there are things we do not know or cannot understand. The ability to act on incomplete knowledge is just another synonym for faith. Do not mistake this faith for idiocy, for believing, as Mark Twain said, in “what you know ain’t so.” Accepting what you know is wrong is not faith; that is just stupid. Faith is accepting what you do not know fully based on the word of one you do know. Faith is following that one you do know. It is not faith to tell everyone you are reading your Bible, praying daily, and watching for signs when you never do anything to demonstrate what God has told you. The one who claims to watch the sky demonstrates faith when she reacts when God puts something into the sky. Faith follows the star.
One other note – their faith is not finished once they see Jesus. God does not abandon them. Once again, they get an unusual message, this time in a dream. Once again, they believe the word of God, and they return home by a different route. Faith obeys even when the way is different, untested, difficult.
#2. Worship. Respond to the presence of the holy.
Following the star is not enough if you don’t know what to do when you get to where the star is leading you. Lots of people are good at the buildup. Youth camp and revival services and the emotion of the discovery that God is in the world and active in your life move many, many people. Then the youth camp is over, and you come back home. Peter never wants to leave the mount of transfiguration because he wants to revel in the miraculous moment. But he has to come back down the mountain.
Advent is a month of services of anticipation. We sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and anticipate how God’s entry into the world changes everything. But now what? Now, the newborn babe is in front of us, growing up too fast, and sooner rather than later, He is going to be talking about taking up crosses.
The Magi are not so starstruck that they miss the even more important part. They worship. They turn their attention away from the star to the baby to which the star has been pointing.
Professor Marvin Tate defines worship as the “human response to the perceived presence of the divine, a presence which transcends normal human activity and is holy.” [Holman Bible Dictionary, 1991]
Do you remember your young children playing more with the wrapping paper and the empty boxes than with the present that came inside? Mistaking the sign for the substance is epidemic. We like to talk about the trappings instead of the subject, the descant instead of the melody, the wonder of the star instead of where the star’s beams are shining.
The Magi, Matthew says, see the child and bow down and worship Him.
The gospels tell this story over and over again. When Jesus empowers Peter to walk on water with Him and then calms the storm, the disciples’ reaction is to worship Him, saying “Truly you are the Son of God.” [Matthew 14:32-33] When I say that we get distracted by the descant, I mean that too many of us would focus on Peter’s walk on the lake or the disappearing lightning rather than the one who performed the miracles; we would miss the chance to worship in our fanfare over the secondary. Studying the miracles is important, but when it interferes with worshiping the one who performs the miracles, we are missing the point.
In the story in Luke to which I have already alluded, when Peter pulls in the miraculous haul of fish, he hits his knees. It is Nathanael and the woman at the well. It is Thomas in the upper room, kneeling and proclaiming, “My Lord and my God.” [John 20:25-28] It goes beyond the gospels. It is Job sensing a supernatural display that he cannot understand, refusing to curse God but instead saying, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” [Job 1:21] It is the prophet’s proclamation:
Rejoice greatly, o Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation… He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea. [Zechariah 9:9-10]
It is worth noting that we have no evidence that these Magi have been trained in worship, that they have any catechism or ritual or liturgical guide, that they have ever seen a bulletin or order of service. They simply encounter the Son of God and react, and their reaction is worship. They are no longer focused on the star. They worship Jesus where they find Him, when they find Him. It is the Psalmist who declares: “Let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.” [Psalm 105:3] Worship comes naturally when we have already been seeking God.
It is also worth noting that they see the child and His mother, but they worship the child. They worship only Him. Surely this was an overwhelming moment. The virgin birth. The star. Surely there was motivation to marvel at it all – the creation, the moment, the miraculous event. But the Magi’s worship is focused. They worship Jesus.
If you study worship very long, you can get into an in-depth discussion. Seminary professors will talk to you about the tabernacle and the establishment of worship practices among the people of Israel. Important writers discuss the complex and multifaceted nature of worship in the Bible. You can spend hours perfecting worship in order to honor God in spirit and truth, to worship as the Psalmist says in the beauty of holiness. Here at Trinity River, even if we know that only a few will gather, we strive to make worship beautiful, orderly, appropriate.
All of that is good. All of that has its place. But all of that is subordinate. Worship is first and foremost a pretty simple idea – our reaction to and recognition of the presence of the divine. “Truly you are the Son of God.” We bow and kneel as a matter of submission to the creator, the father, the giver of all things. The Magi model all of this – multifaceted or not. Worship God. Worship Jesus. Acknowledge who He is. Let everything else take a back seat to Him.
#3. They bring gifts. Matthew uses the story of the gifts of the Magi to foreshadow Jesus’s threefold role as our king, our Lord, and Savior. Gold was a gift for royalty, frankincense a gift for deity, and myrrh a burial preparation. We should not miss the obvious here – these gifts are valuable, rare, and extravagant.
Don’t worry, this sermon is not turning into a year-end budgetary push. You will make your own resolutions about how you support Trinity River Church and the work of God with your money.
No, this sermon is staying with the Magi. They seek, and they find, and they worship, and the give. As Melchior tells Amahl’s mother, the Christ child has no real use for gold. These gifts are far less about how Jesus can use them and far more about what they cost the giver. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The only gift is a portion of thyself.” [“Gifts” (First Series, 1841)] The Magi give what they have to give.
Those seminary professors will tell you that extravagant giving has been a part of the worship of God since ancient times:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take fragrant spices – gum, resin, onycha and galbanum – and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer … and place it in front of the Testimony in the Tent of Meeting. … Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the Lord.” [Exodus 30:34-37]
In Deuteronomy, the command is given: “No man should appear before the Lord empty-handed. Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the Lord your God has blessed you.” [Deuteronomy 16:16-17]
Gold for a king. Frankincense for a deity. Myrrh for death.
Selling your hair to buy a watch chain for one who sold his watch to buy you combs.
Gold from the beggar and the crutch from the cripple.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would give Him a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part.
But what can I give Him? Give my heart.
[Christina Rosetti, 1872]
The opera about Amahl was written in order to be shared on network television in the United States, and it was shown again and again. For sixteen years, it was broadcast every year on Christmas Eve on NBC. It has been remade many times on both network and cable television. How long ago that seems now. It would be unthinkable that network executives would preempt football or “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Temptation Island” or “CSI” for such a thing. How quaint. Singing kings and dancing shepherds and a story about giving the only thing you can to the Christ child. Maybe you can find it on one of those offbeat, low-budget religious channels.
I hope it is not quaint to you. I hope that the story is alive and pulsing through you.
Amahl tells the night visitors that he wants to join their journey, wants to worship this child, wants to make a gift of the only thing that he has. How quaint.
I hope that is not quaint to you either. I hope that the idea of seeking Christ or searching the skies – or the garden or the movie or the fishing hole or the novel or the history book or the arena or wherever you have expertise and interest – for the handiwork of God so that you can see the signs is a daily occurrence for you. And when you see the signs – when you see the star in the east – I hope that you respond with immediacy and purpose and determination. I hope that you load up the camels and come running.
I hope that worship has not become quaint, routine, nothing more than a security blanket for you. These strange foreigners enter the house of the savior, and having seen Him, they hit their knees. There is much here for us to emulate.
And I hope that gifts are not quaint to you. I am sure you did what we did this week – give and receive. I did not need that new speaker or another John Grisham novel, but they were given to me because I am loved. Someone had to make a sacrifice – of time and money and effort and thought – to give me those gifts. Somebody had to wrap them up. You know that our tradition of giving presents at Christmas derives from the Magi. The gift of the Magi is a gift of love and sacrifice. It is the gift of self.
The popular press says things like this: “’Amahl and the Night Visitors’ has all the ingredients of a Christmas show – lyrical music, a winsome boy hero and a miracle at its heart.”  But the popular press does not get it. The elements of Christmas are not lyrical music, a hero, and heart for a miracle. Those things help, but the essence of Christmas is that Jesus is here, and we seek Him and find Him and worship Him.
Have you ever seen the star that is shining from afar?
It’s the star of love that lights the pilgrim’s way.
You can see it if you will, for the star is shining still where the Lord of light is born to you this day.
Have you ever seen the star that is shining over Bethlehem?
Soon we’ll end the long quest.
We will find in God our rest.
If we follow it, we will never go astray.
Have you ever seen the star?
It’s the star of love that lights the pilgrim’s way.
[A.H. Acklen, “Have You Ever Seen the Star”]
We are beggars in this world. No matter the size of your purse or the number of zeroes in your bank account, you have no ability to save yourself. Your hole is too deep to climb out.
You are crippled. You cannot walk fast enough to get where you need to get.
You are a child with a penchant for tall tales and nothing of substance to give.
The night visitors happen by. Oh, you may not see kings coming on their way to Bethlehem, but Matthew has preserved their story for us. What you will see – not just at Christmas time but every day, if you look – are those who are heading to Jesus, following the signs laid out in their own backyard, signs they may not understand but that they recognize as the conception of God, signs that they are chasing with all the earnestness of Magi boldly knocking on Herod’s front door to ask directions.
Throw you crutch in their direction. Healing is waiting for you.
Follow the star. Worship the Christ. Bring your gold and frankincense and myrrh; bring all that you have and all that you are and lay it at His feet.