MATTHEW 2: 1-12
One of the venerable old saints of the church jumped up and stomped out of the annual Christmas play being held at the church. The minister couldn't figure out what was wrong so she hurried after him. When she caught up with the old man in the parking lot and asked what was wrong she was told, "Preacher, I've gone along with a lot of changes through the years, but this thing tonight just went too far, I mean who ever heard of the three wise men walking up to the baby Jesus in the manger and presenting him with....gift certificates."
Christmas has changed a lot since I was a child. But the basic reason and purpose of Christmas hasn't changed one single bit. The characters and the Character of Christmas as God's gift to the world will always stay the same. We may mangle it. We may wrap it in shiny paper. We may try to store it away with all the Christmas decorations, but like the star in the east, it will always be there guiding us back to the central purpose of Christmas, salvation through God's unconditional love wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. That's what the magi or wise men were seeking.
Only Matthew has the story of the visit of the magi, the scholars, the kings or the wise men from the east, whatever title you wish to use. Who were they really? What country or countries did they come from? How far did they travel? Why were they there? Those are the questions preachers have pondered for years. The biblical scholars don't really know. There's a lot of speculation and that's why the title for these characters always seem to get translated differently. The various titles, at least in part, sort of defines what that translation assumes about these visitors.
We may not know a whole lot about the magi but, from the story, we can know some things about their character and the character of Christmas. While there are a lot of things the magi can teach us, there are two which I want to lift up today.
First, the magi sought Jesus. That was their whole purpose in this part of the story of Christ.
When our son, Rob was a fairly young, I bought a ceramic nativity set, for which my dad made a wooden stable. I set up each of the characters: Mary, Joseph, the magi, the animals and shepherds and played around until I got all the right angles so you could see all the characters. Rob decided he liked to rearrange the characters in the scene each day after I had initially set it up. Usually it related to hiding the baby Jesus or putting Mary and Joseph behind the stable. It became a game between us with Rob rearranging the manger scene and me putting it back the way it was originally. But one year, early on, I discovered that he had taken all the wise men and put them in front of the manger, so you couldn't actually see the manger, with their faces turned toward the back of the stable instead of looking out into the livingroom. I asked him why this new configuration and he replied,I "The wise men cam to see the baby Jesus, right? Then they'd be looking at him and not out at the room, wouldn't they?" I couldn't argue with that could I? So I didn't mess with the characters again.
Rob was right. The magi would have been looking at Jesus. Jesus was the reason they traveled so far and so long. Of course, they'd be facing Jesus. Because the purpose of the magi was to seek Jesus.
What they did with who they found we don't know for sure. Some traditions say there were 12 of them and they scattered throughout the world, most going to Spain, spreading the good news. But this isn't described in the bible. What we do know is their mission, their purpose, their destiny was to find the baby Jesus, a King born in a stable and laid in a feed trough.
That's not all we learn from the wise men though. We also learn that while the magi sought Jesus, through Jesus God sought us.
Christmas isn't just about a few days off from work and school and presents and food and family gatherings. It's the story of the beginning of Christianity. It's the story of the birth of salvation and grace. It's the story of second chances.
When the angels sang "Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth, goodwill towards all people" it wasn't just words of praise. It was a pronouncement of the promise of God.
Hallmark cards have been saying it for years....but it's just as effective today as when they first said it, ˜IF YOU CARE, THEN SEND THE VERY BEST!" God cares. God sent us God's very best, not for one day a year, not for a season or a particular time, but for every day of our lives.
Do any of you remember a toy called the Lionel Electric Train set? Yeah, that's what we all wanted when we were younger. Especially that steam engine where the headlight worked and steam actually came out of the smokestack. That was the coolest.
I remember my brothers Robert (that's where our son gets his name) and Jamie playing with the train one day. They ran the train around the curves too fast and it derailed. Robert bent over the train and tried to put it back on the track but wasn't having any luck. Dad saw what was going on and came over to help. He said, "You can't do that from above; you have to get down beside it." Then Dad lay down on the floor beside the train and track so he could see to place the wheels of the train just so and the train would be back on the track.
I happen to think that's a great way to think about the incarnation. The human race derailed turned away from God, became more interested in our own comfort and success than in the situation of our fellow human beings. This comes out in greed, and envy, and gossip and “isms” of all kinds and eventually turns into wars if it goes on long enough and spreads to a large enough group of people. Our lives needed to be put back on the track of life. It couldn't be done from above; God had to come down beside us. That's what God did in Jesus. God took off the robes of heaven and put on the rags of our earthly existence. God clothed Godself in our flesh and blood and came to live among us in the person of Jesus.
Through Jesus, God sought us in order to show us and share with us God's unconditional love and grace, through forgiveness and resurrection. That promise came wrapped in swaddling clothes.
The magi's character revealed God's character. The magi sought Jesus, and through Jesus God sought us.
Every year at this time we celebrate the greatest treasure ever given to humanity. It was a love letter from God in the form of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. That's the character of Christmas. The wise men sought Him and through Him God sought us. I hope you'll take the time this year to read that love letter. It's found in the bible from Genesis to Revelation. And then I hope you take the time to read it every single day.