Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Carol Service sermon on Matthew 2:1-12

[preached at Emmanuel, Hastings this year] 

I guess we’re all familiar with this story of the visit of the wise men, which we just read.

We’ve seen them on enough Christmas cards.

And we’ve watched the slightly baffled children being shoved on to the stage in their nativity plays, dressed as the teachers’ images of oriental kings.

It’s a familiar story, so we might miss just how extraordinary this whole episode is.

These are surprising visitors

Who make a surprising journey

On a surprising search

Bringing surprising gifts.

Let’s look at some of these surprises together.

First, these are surprising visitors.

They sweep into our story and they sweep out again.

We know next to nothing about them.

Our passage calls them Magi, from which we get our word magicians.

They are maybe priest philosophers.

Wise men probably isn’t a bad description.

Certainly they are astrologers.

And astrology gets a bad press in the Bible.

In the Bible’s terms, these are not religiously orthodox people.

They’ve got some funny ideas.

Yet God invites them to the birth of his son.

And they’re foreigners.

They’re not part of God’s special chosen people, Israel.

The visit of these wise men, is a hint who God invites to himself.

They’re outsiders.

They’re slightly dodgey.

But God welcomes them.

They show us that Jesus is of worldwide, global significance.

He’s come for all the nations.

For all people.

In fact, the star is a sign that Jesus is of cosmic importance.

They are surprising visitors.


They’ve made a surprising journey.

Our passage tells us simply that they came from the East.

We don’t know where there from exactly.

The best guess is probably that they come from Babylon, present day Iraq, where God’s people had once been in exile.

If you go straight across the desert, it’s 540 miles from Babylon to Jerusalem.

Despite the spoof version of the carol, of course, they didn’t come “one in a taxi, one in a car, [and] one in a scooter sounder his hooter.”

They had to walk or ride.

The journey would have taken at least a month, probably much longer.

By the time the wise men get to Jesus he’s not in the manger any more – he’s been able to upgrade to a house.

By now Jesus is called “a child” rather than “a baby”.

Later on it turns out that the star might have appeared up to 2 years earlier.

A journey like this would have been an expensive, difficult business.

The wise men end up risking their lives for Jesus’ sake, by defying the murderous king Herod.

They tell us it’s worth taking the time and effort to find out who Jesus really is, whatever it takes.

It’s worth crossing a continent to find out about Jesus!

Thankfully, we don’t have to journey across deserts on camels, but we do need to investigate Jesus’ claims for ourselves.

For us, it’s relatively easy.

Like those at Herod’s court, we have the Bible readily available.

We only have to make it as far as the church here to find out more about Jesus.

There’s a corny old car bumper sticker which says, “Wise men sought Jesus – they still do”.

They are on a surprising search.

We sometimes talk about these wise men as the 3 kings.

This passage doesn’t tell us they were kings.

And it doesn’t tell us there were 3 of them.

This is actually a passage about 2 kings – King Herod and King Jesus.

The wise men ask Herod, “Where is the one who has been born to be king of the Jews?”

Now, Herod, of course, is the king of the Jews.

When they ask for the King of the Jews, Herod thinks well, that’s me!

And he doesn’t welcome the idea of a vacancy!

Herod knows that the wise men must be seeking the Christ – that is, the long-awaited rescuer king, whom God had promised.

The one who would bring in God’s kingdom in all its fullness and put everything right.

He is going to be the ruler who will shepherd the people of Israel.

Jesus will be a totally different sort of king from Herod.

He will provide for and protect his people.

In the very next section of Matthew’s gospel, Herod sends in his soldiers to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem.

Herod kills his people.

In contrast, Jesus will die for them.

This is a search for the true and ultimate king, the Saviour of the world.

Lastly, these wise men bring surprising gifts.

They give Jesus gold.

It’s a present fit for a king.

And remember Jesus is an ordinary peasant boy.

After all, he was born in the outbuilding of a one star-hotel!


Frankinsense / incense

In the Old Testament incense was offered to God as a symbol of prayer

The wise men bow down and worship Jesus.

It seems they recognise him as more than a mere human being.

Jesus is God come in the flesh, who deserves our worship.


Spice used in embalming the dead

We’ve got 4 children and they’ve received all sorts of gifts over the years, but they’ve never been given a toy hearse or a cuddly undertaker.

Jesus was born to die.

He had come to die in the place of all who would trust in him, that they might be forgiven.

Jesus remains a surprising king.

This Christmas I want to encourage you to seriously investigate for yourself who he is.

You might find that he surprises you. 

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