"Adoration of the Magi" by Rembrandt
A woman who worked in a children’s day care facility was reading the story of Jesus’ birth to her children one morning. As usual, she stopped to see if the children understood….
“What do we call the three wise men?” the teacher asked.
“The three maggots,” replied a bright 5-year-old.
“What gift did the Magi bring baby Jesus?” she asked, gently correcting.
“Gold, Frankensteins and Smurfs!” the same 5-year-old replied.
Often we get the story of Christmas confused. Oh, we know that the three wise men were not maggots. We know that they didn’t bring gifts of Frankensteins and Smurfs. We get the words right, but often we lose the meaning of Christmas.
The wise men understood that Christmas is about worship. Let us hear their story again from Matthew 2:1-12. Listen for God’s word to you….
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
I believe we can learn several things from this passage about worshipping Jesus. First, we learn what we need to do before we can worship: we need to receive the announcement. The Magi received the announcement of Jesus’ birth by a star.
We don’t really know much about the Magi. It is believed by some that the Magi came from Persia and that they belonged to a tribe of priests. The historian Herodotus says that the Magi were originally a tribe of Medians who had tried to overthrow the Persian Empire but had failed. They became a priestly tribe within the empire; they also became teachers of the Persian kings. Supposedly, they were skilled in philosophy and science and they had a special interest in astrology. They studied the stars to see how they might have an effect upon the course of human history. The Magi were known as holy men, wise men, and interpreters of dreams. The word “magi” is a Greek transliteration of an Iranian word that means “great”.
One reason why we don’t know much about the Magi is that Matthew doesn’t tell us very much. What Matthew is interested in is the fact that these non-Jews came to worship the Jewish Messiah. Jesus is the focus of the story.
In his portrayal of the nativity scene, Rembrandt focused attention almost entirely on the baby in the manger. He did this by painting a shaft of light so that it falls on the Christ child. However, the light falling on the babe in the manger almost, in a way, bounces off him and on to Mary and others who are close-by. Other figures in the painting, more distant from the Christ child, are shrouded in shadows. With that shaft of light from heaven, Rembrandt reveals the Messiah as the focus of the Christmas story, but others close to the Messiah also receive his reflected light.
Another thing to notice in Matthew’s story is how God suited the announcement of Jesus’ birth to the capacity of these Gentile astrologers who lived in a distant land. The Magi studied the stars and so God revealed to them through a special star that a unique king was to be born in Palestine.
We have something better than a star to guide us to the Savior. We have the Scriptures, which 2 Peter 1:19 calls “a light shining in a dark place”. If we are going to worship Jesus well, we need to receive the announcement of Scripture about him.
A second thing we need to do, to worship Jesus well, is that we need to count the cost.
The Magi had to travel a long distance to worship the Messiah. I am sure they had to calculate the cost before they made the journey, to see if they had enough resources to travel to Palestine and back again.
Jesus said, “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?” Jesus went on to say, “In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:28,33)
The cost of following Jesus can be great. So we need to make sure that we count the cost.
After we have done that, we need to do a third thing that the Magi also did: we need to seek Jesus with all our hearts.
When the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, they didn’t give up looking for the newborn king; they kept searching and asking until they found him. The Magi had an all-consuming drive to find this new king and honor him.
The Lord says to us in Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
A fourth thing we need to do if we are to truly worship the Christ is to not let self-interest or apathy or fear get in the way.
Herod let self-interest get in the way of worshipping Jesus. Herod did not want anyone else to be the King of the Jews. He alone wanted to be on the throne.
In contrast to Herod, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem seem to be simply apathetic about the birth of Jesus. They know the Scriptures. When asked by Herod where the Christ is to be born, they point to Micah 5:2 and tell Herod that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. They were but a few miles from Bethlehem themselves, yet they didn’t follow the Scriptures and go to see the Savior. Why? Perhaps they were simply apathetic. Perhaps they were so familiar with the truth that it ceased to move them to action. Or maybe they were just afraid of Herod and what he might do to them if they went to pay homage to the new king.
We need to pay close attention to our souls and make sure we do not let self-interest, or apathy, or even fear get in the way of worshipping Jesus.
In addition to telling us how to prepare for true worship, our text for today also reveals what true worship looks like. It looks like joy! The Scripture says that when the Magi saw the star over the house where Jesus was, they were overjoyed. Do we worship Jesus with joy?
Sherwood Eliot Wirt once wrote: “Today most worship services in traditional churches are by their nature solemn. The problem is the pseudo-spiritual smog that we spread over church life, the unnecessary gravity with which our leadership protects its dignity, the unnatural churchly posturing that so easily passes into overbearing arrogance and conceit…. Joy is the gift of grace through the Holy Spirit. All we have to do is reach out and take it. No one can mourn or weep for long when Jesus is around. Depressed spirits simply cannot stay depressed in His Presence.”
David prayed, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” (Psalm 51:12) I believe if we pray along the same lines, God will restore our joy in worship if we have lost it.
Another characteristic of true worship we see here is that the Magi worshipped Jesus with giving hearts. They gave to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
I have enjoyed a quote that Lynne von Trapp has shared recently in an email. “Three Wise Women would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts, and there would be peace on earth.”
Undoubtedly, that is true. But we must deal with the story as it is. Why might the wise men have given the gifts that they gave?
Well, each gift was appropriate in its way, whether the wise men fully realized that or not. Gold was appropriate to Jesus’ kingship. Frankincense was appropriate to Jesus’ deity; frankincense was often used in worship of the Lord in the Jewish Temple. The gift of myrrh was strange indeed. It was used as a spice for embalming dead bodies. Nicodemus later used one hundred pounds of myrrh in Jesus’ burial. Myrrh, strange as it may seem, was an appropriate gift, given to one who would die for our sins.
The wise men ascribed worth to Jesus, they worshipped him, by bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But how can we give Jesus what he is worth today? What gifts can we bring to him? This is the question asked by Christina Rossetti in her poem, “In the bleak midwinter”—
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
Jesus tells us what we can give him, in Matthew 25:35-40. Jesus says that whenever we feed the hungry, or give the thirsty something to drink, or welcome the stranger, or clothe the naked, or care for the sick, or visit those in prison, whenever we serve “the least of these” members of his family, we do it unto him. (Matthew 25:35-40)
But there is more. I believe we can give to Jesus the spiritual gifts of myrrh, frankincense, and gold. We can give him the gift of myrrh by recognizing his death on the cross for our sins. We can give him the gift of frankincense by recognizing Jesus’ deity. We can give him the gift of gold by recognizing Jesus’ kingship and allowing him to reign in our lives.
In short, we can worship Jesus by giving as much as we know of ourselves to as much as we know of him. The Magi did not know a lot about Jesus. They did not know as much as the religious leaders in Jerusalem. They did not know as much as we do. However, they worshipped Jesus as best they knew with what they had. In the same way, we do not have to begin with a lot of knowledge about Jesus to worship him; we need to simply give him our hearts.
Finally, I would not want you to leave here today without realizing that God gives us grace to worship him. A God-given star and a God-given Scripture (Micah 5:2) guided the Magi. Even after they paid homage to Jesus, the wise men were guided by grace; they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, so they returned home by another route. A gracious God superintended their entire journey. And the same is true for us.
The story is told of a German pastor who was called away from his little parish in an emergency. Since there was no time for him to get another pastor to fill his pulpit on the coming Sunday, he called upon the tutor of a noble family who lived in the neighborhood.
As it happened, the tutor was not a Christian. When the pastor called upon him to preach he replied: “How can I preach what I do not believe?”
“What?” said the pastor in astonishment. “You believe in God, don’t you?”
“Yes,” replied the tutor. “I believe in God.”
“And do you not believe that we should love God?” asked the pastor.
“Yes,” said the tutor again. “I believe we should love God.”
“Well,” answered the pastor, “I will give you a text to preach on. Jesus said in Matthew 22:37, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’”
The tutor agreed to preach on that text. Therefore, the pastor left to attend to his emergency and the tutor sat down to study the text and write an outline of his message. He very rationally wrote out his first point and gave a reason for it. The first point was: “We must love God.” Second, he wrote: “We must love God with all our powers; indeed, nothing less can satisfy God.” Third, he wrote: “Do we thus love God?” The tutor’s conscience forced him to write: “No, we do not thus love God.”
Later, the tutor wrote about this experience: “Without any previously formed plan I was brought to add to my notes: ‘We need a Savior.’” At that point, light broke in upon his soul. He later said, “I understood that I had not loved God, that I did need a Savior, that Jesus Christ was that Savior; and then I loved him and I clung to him at once. On the morrow I preached the sermon, and the third point was the chief—the need of Jesus and the necessity of trusting such a Savior.”
As I search my soul, I find I am very much like that tutor. I know I have not loved God with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my strength. And so I know that I too am in need of a Savior. In fact, I need Jesus to worship Jesus.
Why should we even want to worship well? I think C. S. Lewis answers this question well when he says that God “is that Object to admire which (or, if you like, to appreciate which) is simply to be awake, to have entered the real world; not to appreciate which is to have lost the greatest experience, and in the end to have lost all.”
So let us take a moment now to ask God to make us true worshippers of him, not only at Christmas, but everyday….