During the Season of Advent I preached a sermon series called
“Opening the Gift of Christmas,” and sometimes, as I tried to
picture it, I pictured it like this—like a little boy opening a big,
cardboard box in which there is a wonderful present, lifting one
flap on the box, and then another, and then another, and then
another, until at last he can see what’s inside.
For us, the wonderful present inside the Advent box was
Jesus, and we lifted the flaps of hope, peace, joy, and love one
Sunday at a time until—on Christmas Eve—there he was!
We could see what we had been waiting for.
We lifted him gently out of the box on that night, and held
him in our arms, and we’ve spent the last couple of weeks
celebrating God’s greatest gift.
But did you ever get one of those gifts that has lots of
features? I’m thinking
about the grandmother who got a smart phone for Christmas, and whose
grandchildren are even now showing her all the things it can do.
“What?” she says, “It can take pictures?
It can send email?
It can play videos?
It can send text messages?”
She’s finding out about her gift one feature at a time, and
it will take her a while to become completely familiar with it,
maybe a long while. So,
I’m thinking about Mary, the mother of Jesus, who looked into the
manger on Christmas Eve and saw that perfect gift lying there, and
I’m thinking how she would have learned who he was and what he would
become one truth at a time.
In fact, that’s what I’m calling my sermon series for these next
few weeks, for Epiphany and the Sundays that follow: “Opening the
Gift of Christmas One Truth at a Time.”
I’m going to be working from the Gospel of Matthew, and as
you know Matthew tells the story of Jesus in a different way than
Luke does, beginning with the story of his birth.
Luke’s Christmas story features Mary, and angels, and
shepherds, while Matthew’s Christmas story features Joseph, and
dreams, and wise men.
You might ask why, since there was only one birth.
Why do we need two different stories?
But I’ve been thinking about something John says near the end
of his Gospel. In
chapter 20, beginning at verse 30, John says: “Now
Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which
are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may
come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah,
the Son of God, and that through believing you may
have life in his name.”
And in the next chapter, as he is bringing his Gospel to a close, he
says: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every
one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could
not contain the books that would be written” (21:25).
What John is telling us is that there
were lots of stories about Jesus out there, lots of sayings, lots of
signs. He couldn’t
include all of them in his Gospel and so he picked and chose some
rather than others.
Let’s assume that Matthew and Luke did the same: that each of them
did some picking and choosing as to what would end up in their
respective Gospels. John
says that the things he included in his Gospel were included for a
purpose—so that his readers and hearers might come to believe that
Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing
they might have life in his name.
Don’t you think Matthew and Luke also had some purpose in
mind as they began to write?
Didn’t they want their gospels to do something, and not only
I picture Matthew sitting there at his
desk with a shoebox full of index cards, all of them stories about
Jesus or sayings that were attributed to him.
Matthew is going through them thinking about which ones he
will include and which ones he will leave out (and, by the way, any
college student who has ever written a term paper knows something
about this process).
Many of those stories would have come from the Gospel of Mark, which
was written several years before Matthew.
Some of the sayings would have come from a written collection
of Jesus’ sayings which scholars now call “Q.”
Matthew may have had other sources, other stories and
sayings, but as he looks through that shoebox he is thinking about
what he wants his Gospel to do, and about which stories and sayings
will serve his purpose best.
And then—way in the back of the box, almost lost behind the
others—he finds this story about the magi, and he knows as soon as
he sees it that it’s the one he wants to tell, maybe only because
this story—from the very beginning—presents Jesus as a king.
It begins with a king—Herod the Great—who
has been variously described by historians as “a madman,” “an evil
genius,” and someone who was “prepared to commit any crime in order
to gratify his unbounded ambition.”[i]
It is to this king, sitting on his throne in
Jerusalem, that wise men from the East come
asking where they can find the new king of the Jews, which makes me
wonder just how wise they really were.
Unlike the hymn, Matthew never identifies them as kings.
The Greek word is magi,
and they were most likely Persian astrologers.
Craig Satterlee writes: “a more precise description
might be that the Magi belonged to the priestly caste of
Zoroastrianism, which paid particular attention to the stars. This
priestly caste gained an international reputation for astrology,
which was at that time highly regarded as a science.
So these Wise Ones from the East were scientists and
practiced other religions, and God used their faith and knowledge to
bring them to the Christ.”[ii]
When I read that description about scientists who practiced other
religions I did a quick search on my computer, typing “VCU,” and
“Faculty,” and “Astronomy” into the search engine.
For some reason I ended up in the Physics Department, but
when I looked at the list of names I saw Purosottam Jena, Shiv
Khanna, Adam Niculescu, Bijan Rao.
I don’t know these people, and I don’t know that they
practice other religions, but they have these exotic names and these
exacting disciplines and I could almost picture them, gathered
around the latest images from the Hubble space telescope saying,
“Hmmm…” So, what if some
of their ancient predecessors looked into the night sky, saw an
unusual celestial event, and said, “Hmmm…”?
They may have spent weeks or even months discussing what it
meant, but in the end decided to go and see for themselves.
In those days before telephones, the Internet, and the
24-hour news cycle they didn’t have many other options.
We don’t know how many of them there were, how they traveled,
or how long it took them, but eventually they got to
Israel and made their way to the capital city
Where else would you look for the newborn king?
But when Herod got word that visitors from the East were looking
for the new king of the Jews he was disturbed, troubled, frightened,
and all Jerusalem with him.
He called together his own wise men—the chief priests and the
scribes—and asked them where the Messiah was supposed to be born
because even though he, Herod, was not a Jew, he knew all about
their expectations of a Messiah.[iii]
They reminded him that once upon a time a shepherd boy named
David from Bethlehem
had been anointed king while the old king, Saul, was still on the
throne. They told him it
could happen again, that it
would happen again, soon. So
Herod was always watching his back, and it must have made him a
little jumpy. The chief
priests and scribes told him that, according to prophecy, the
Messiah would be born in
Bethlehem, just like his ancestor David.
So Herod called the wise men in, secretly, and told them
where they could find the new king, and asked them to go and search
diligently, and then come back and tell him so that he, too, could
worship the child, but not before finding out from them exactly when
they had seen the star.
He was calculating the child’s age, you see?
Working on “Plan B” in case the wise men didn’t return.
But this story isn’t really about him.
When the wise men left the palace they set out for Bethlehem and
it looked as if that star—that heavenly light—was going along ahead
of them until it came to rest over a house no different from most of
the other houses in that little town.
But they knew it was the place they had been looking for
since they set out, and that they had finally reached the end of
their long journey, and they rejoiced (as it says in the King James
Version) “with exceeding great joy.”
And then they knocked on the door and Mary opened it and
there was Jesus, who must have been nearly two years old by this
time, not a baby in a manger, but a toddler standing there beside
his mother, looking up and wondering who these strange visitors
were. And they must have
been looking at him, wondering, “Is this it?
Is this what we’ve come all this way to worship?
This little boy?
This tiny king?” But at
some point they decided he was
“it”; he was the one they’d come to worship. “And
they knelt down and paid him homage, and they opened up their
treasure chests, and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense,
and myrrh” (2:11).
And it’s that point I want to linger on,
that point when the wise men saw Jesus for who he really was.
The theologians would call it an epiphany, and if you read
the front of your bulletin this morning you know that the word
literally, “to shine upon.” “It’s what happens when an actor steps
onto a dark stage and the audience waits breathlessly for the
spotlight to come up, to reveal his identity.
In the church, Epiphany is
our celebration of how God’s light shines on Jesus, revealing his
true identity to an audience of wise men, kings, and ordinary people
And this may be the point Matthew is trying to make with this
story: that Jesus wasn’t just the king of
the Jews; he was the king of the world.
And if a handful of road-weary wise men, from another
country, and another religion, can see that, then we should be able
to see it, too. There
comes a point for each of us when we have to look on Jesus and
decide: is this it? Is
he the one? Can I open
up the treasure chest of my heart to him?
Can I offer him the best gifts I have to give?
The story goes on from there.
Matthew tells us that the wise men were warned in a dream not
to go back to Jerusalem, so they went home another way.
And when Herod heard about it he was furious, and sent his
soldiers to slaughter every male child under the age of two in
That might have been the end of Jesus right there, but Joseph
had a dream too, and in that dream he was warned to take the child
and his mother and flee to Egypt.
That’s what he did.
And that’s why I’m able to stand here and tell this story
more than two thousand years and nearly six thousand miles away from
the actual event. And
that’s why you have a chance to decide what you’re going to do with
Jesus. Are you going to
wipe him out, as Herod tried to do?
Or are you going to worship him, as the wise men did?
Matthew says they went home by another way.
Others say they went home a different way, while still others
say they just went home “different.”
What about you?
You’ve been invited to look on a little boy named Jesus and see him
for the king he really is.
You’ve been invited to fall down and worship him, and open up
the treasure chest of your heart to him.
You’ve been invited to look at him in a whole new light, and
to go home “different” than you came.
Will you, or won’t you?
There’s only one person in the world who knows the answer to
And that person is you.
the best but often the most readily available source of
Craig Satterlee, “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12” from the
Working Preacher website, January 6, 2013
Herod was an Idumean, from the region south of Israel.
He was appointed king of Israel in 37
B.C. and ruled until his death in 4 B.C.
He may have been especially troubled by the
legitimacy of one who was
born king of the
Jews rather than made
Jay Green is the pseudonym I use when I don’t want to quote
myself in the bulletin. Now you know, and I know there is at
least one person in the world who reads the endnotes. Thank