Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Here's last week's sermon....I will publish the new few weeks' messages as well.

The Marvel of Christmas
Matthew 2:1-12
December 5, 2004
Glenn Layne

Kings and wise men and a baby and a slaughter, a guiding star—such is the story of the first Christmas as told by Matthew. It’s a story that never ceases to hold the fascination of children and old men as well. Once a year it gets recycled like fruitcake and reruns of “Home Alone” and we perk up again like a dog that’s just heard the can opener and we trot in to see what’s going on.

And there is the story, and there is the story behind the story, and there is the story behind the story behind the story. It’s this layering that really gets us. It’s kind of like a child’s rhyme that we learn when we’re kids, and then years later we learn the real meaning of it. That’s the way it is with the Christmas story—layer upon layer upon layer. And you can never get it all.

So that’s what makes the story so marvelous. It’s not a coincidence that that people who make the Spider-man comics are called “Marvel” Comics. There is something marvelous and larger than life about a guy who can shoot webs from his wrist. But that’s nothing compared to the marvel in the manger. The story attracts us like bugs to a light.

We really have two Christmas stories. Matthew’s version tells things from Joseph’s point of view. Luke’s tells the story from Mary’s point of view, which makes perfect sense when you consider that there’s evidence that Luke had the opportunity to interview Mary as he prepared to write his gospel. This morning, we’re sticking with Matthew’s story—the story of wise men, a star and a wicked king—but both accounts are needed to know the whole story, and together they make more sense than they do separately.

So what we’re going to do today is peel away the layers in Matthew’s story, three layers deep, so see


THE STORY and THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY hang together. This isn’t a fable set in Far, Far Away Land, but in Judea in 4 BC—with real people in a real place, described realistically.

We join the story midway. In Matthew 1, Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant, and decides to cut off their engagement until he has a dream of an angel telling him exactly what Mary had no doubt told him: that the child she carries was conceived by an act of the Holy Spirit. The child is born and He is named Jesus, a name that means “Jehovah saves”—the same name that we know in the Old Testament as Joshua.

And they lived happily ever after.

No? Of course not! Remember, this is not a fable. Their little happy family in Bethlehem is about to become the center of unwanted attention and a world of trouble.

Then we have the coming of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-2):

1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to read was Mad Magazine. And my favorite feature was Spy vs. Spy: two guys identical to each other except that one was totally white and the other guy was totally black. They were always finding lame brain ways to blow each other up that would inevitably backfire on the one who started it.

Well, it’s easy to miss, but there’s a “versus” situation being set up in the story. We’re told that this takes place in the time of KING Herod, and that these guys arrive from out of town looking for the newborn KING of the Jews. Check me if I’m wrong, but that’s one king too many!

Do think Herod was happy about a rival king being born? No way! You have to understand that Herod had fought and clawed his way into becoming king to begin with. And he was willing to kill anyone who threatened his reign. The death toll eventually included his first wife and two of his own sons. This was not a nice guy.

On the other hand, we have these Magi. These men were astrologers from the east, the neighboring Parthian empire. To get the full picture, you need to know that Herod hated the Parthians. The Parthians had actually kicked Herod and the Romans out of Judea in 40 BC, sending Herod in exile to Rome, where he lobbied the Romans to strike back, which they did three years later. Herod was made king then, and he never forgot what the Parthians had done.

So these Parthians Magi arrive, and what’s the reaction to these Iraqi soothsayers? Look at Matthew 2:3-8:

3When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5"In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:

6" `But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'"

7Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Herod is playing these guys. He no more what to worship the child-king than Usama bin Ladin wants to run for mayor of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He’s killed before to maintain his rule, and some kid isn’t going to stand in the way this time.

And you know his endgame: he sends his thugs into Bethlehem and has all little boys age two and under killed, but it’s too late. Two more dreams—one to the Magi, another to Joseph tells them to flee. The Magi go east, while Joseph, Mary and Jesus go west, to Egypt.

But before that, the Magi do make it to see Jesus (Matthew 2:9-12):

9After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

These men arrived looking for a king and don’t find Him in a palace, but in a carpenter’s house in an old village called Bethlehem. Putting Matthew and Luke together, it seems that after Jesus was born, they settled down in Bethlehem—until these events broke everything open.

Now I told you that there’s the story, the story behind the story, and then the story behind the story behind the story. The story is what we read here. The story behind the story is when you fill in the details about who Herod was and who these Magi are and how this story really does fit what we know about conditions in this place and time.

What’s the story behind the story behind the story?

Let me put this in terms of three marvels of Christmas that this story points to:

1. First some bad news: the story tells us that the rulers of this world are always at war with God.

Ever hear the Christmas song, “Do you hear what I hear?” Sure you have. At the end even “the mighty king” draws attention to the newborn Jesus.

But that’s not what the mighty king does in this story. The mighty king wants Jesus dead. Mighty kings generally don’t want rivals—even God.

Back in the Old Testament, Psalm 2 speaks of this fact:

1Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
2The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers gather together
against the LORD
and against his Anointed One [Messiah, Christ].
3"Let us break their chains," they say,
"and throw off their fetters."

And so it goes. Mighty kings from Herod to Nero to Mao and Stalin and Saddam Hussein and Castro always make war on God and His Son, Jesus Christ. And they always lose. Ever time. No exception. You just have to give it some time.

2. Next some good news: when people set out for spiritual truth, God meets them and takes them farther than they ever imagined.

Now, the Bible says that in Romans 2:11 that no one seeks God. But God does move on people’s hearts to seek spiritual truth. And when people respond to that, God will go out of His way to meet people with His truth.

Back in the 1960s, J. Christy Wilson and his wife Betty were unofficial “missionaries” in Afghanistan. They were there as English teachers, and also quietly sharing the love of Jesus in that Muslim country that’s been in the news so much the last three years. It was not that unusual, after a while, for a person to come to the Wilson’s home at night and tell the same story: “I had a dream, and I saw a man who said, ‘Go talk to Dr, Wilson; he speaks the truth about God.’” This happened again and again.

And that’s what happened with these Magi. They weren’t Jews; they were pagan astrologers. But they had a sincere desire, so God arranged a show in the sky for them that sent them on the road to Bethlehem. And they found a King, but more than a King—notice how it says in verse 11 that they worshipped Him? They somehow knew that this was not just a child, and not just a newborn king, but that this child was worthy of worship—that He was God among us.

And that leads to the last thing, the last and best marvel of Christmas:

3. And some really, really good news: in the Christmas story God really does meet us, head-on, in His Son, Jesus.

Back in Matthew 1:22-23, we read:

22All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"--which means, "God with us."

“God with us” is not just a name, but a reality. That’s the real marvel. The eternal in a child. The boundless One in a baby. The Almighty in held in a mother’s arms.

And He came for you. He came to meet you, to love you, to make you a part of the Forever Family of God.

And to do that, He died for you on a rough cross. That was always the plan, from the get-go.

He’s not a baby anymore. He sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, and one day will judge all the peoples of earth. And you can be His follower, starting today. He died to make you right with His Father. He is the bridge to eternal life. Come and accept His love. Begin the journey that God designed you for. And that’s the real marvel of Christmas.

© Glenn Layne 2004

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