CHRISTMAS PRESENCE — GOLD
by Pastor Mike Fortune
December 4, 2010
Retooning the Nativity
What Jesus wants for Christmas is our most...
- Diligent seeking [Matthew 2:1-2; Isaiah 60:6]
- Extravagant giving [Matthew 2:3-11; Matthew 15:21-28]
- Faithful living [Matthew 2:12; Isaiah 46:4]
This morning, as churches around the world celebrate the liturgical season of Advent, we too are taking a closer look at the events preceding the birth of Jesus. And as we do so, if we diligently seek Jesus like the wise men we’re studying today, I’m sure we’ll not only draw closer to His Presence in our lives, we may also discover some new insights into the Scriptures as our video clip revealed. Did you know that neither of the Gospel stories mention Mary traveling by donkey? That the Bible doesn’t mention an inn keeper? Or for that matter an inn? That the Greek word kataluma in Luke 2:7 and translated “inn” is the same word more accurately translated in Luke 22:11 as “upper room”? Which means Jesus’ birth prefigures his death and literally begins and ends in an upper room!
But today we’re focusing on the gold the wise men gave Jesus. By the way, do you know what would have happened if it had been “Three Wise Women” instead of wise men? They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, and brought three casseroles instead! Just joking. While it’s true we don’t know how many wise men there were or if they were all men, we do know they were undoubtedly educated—but not kings like the song we sing. And while they didn’t arrive at the manger in time to see Christ’s birth as numerous famous paintings and even our nativity set here conveys, Scripture says they eventually did arrive so we’ll get into all that shortly as we think about what Jesus wants the most from us this Christmas. But before we do, let’s read Matthew’s account in chapter two verses one through twelve.
“1Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, 2‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.’ 3King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem.4He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, ‘Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?’ 5‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they said, ‘for this is what the prophet wrote: 6‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are not least among the ruling cities of Judah, for a ruler will come from you who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’ 7Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. 8Then he told them, ‘Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!’ 9After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! 11They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.”
Verse one says Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Which is a little town five miles south of Jerusalem. Today you have to pass through heavy duty security with armed guards and a wall with barbed wire similar to the Berlin Wall that used to separate Germany. But back then, anyone could make the short journey. The best demographic information available suggests a town like Bethlehem in Jesus’ day had about 2k inhabitants with 36 to 48 children two years old or younger half of whom may have been boys so at the most, twenty to twenty four baby boys younger than two years old died after the wise men left town and Herod realized he had been duped. Hollywood makes it seem much larger of course. Which is sad nonetheless but helpful when skeptics doubt the accuracy of the birth story of Jesus because the famous historian Josephus doesn’t mention the killing at all.
But compared to some of Herod’s other brutal murders that are recorded in history, including the foiled plot to kill thousands of “all the principal men of the entire Jewish nation” [Antiquities 17] inside the Jericho hippodrome when he died, so that Israel would actually mourn his death, the Bethlehem infanticide recorded in Matthew 2:16 was hardly noticeable. Furthermore, as Paul Maier writes in his book First Christmas, Josephus’ audience was Roman and Greek. Neither of which would have been alarmed at the death of babies. Roman fathers had the right not lift his baby off the floor after birth, letting it die, while Greeks in Sparta regularly practiced infanticide as a sort of birth control. Sad but true.
But this just makes the wise men’s diligent study and interest in the birth of a baby in Judah all the more fascinating because Matthew 2:2 says they asked of everyone in Jerusalem once they arrived, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” In a time when the dominate cultures around them cared very little about the birth of a child, foreign Gentile star gazers did. Point number one: What Jesus wants from us this Christmas is for us, like these wise men, to diligently seek Him.
Can you imagine how significant it was to these wise from the east that they witnessed the arrival of a new star? Trudy Morgan Cole in her new book The Wise Men I recently bbought at the ABC captures some of their excitement well. “A new star means a new beginning, something truly sacred and heaven-sent.” [p.26]. And since Rome was being ruled at the time by Augustus with an iron fist, the likelihood that this new beginning was taking place west of them in Rome wasn’t good. It had to be Judah! For over 500 years they had been reading prophecies of Daniel predicting the coming of a Messiah or Anointed One. And they were aware of another wise man’s prophecy, Balaam, from the east found in the Jewish Scriptures of Numbers 24:17 that promised, “There shall come a star out of Jacob.” So perhaps you can imagine their excitement when one evening they actually found one that had never existed in that piece of skyline before! Matthew 2:9 makes it clear they first saw the star while they were in the east.
The Jews regarded the regions of northern Arabia, Syria, and Mesopatamia as “the east.” When we studied the Wonder Woman Sarah this summer, we noticed she came from Ur in Sumeria, lower Mesopotamia, about halfway between modern day Baghdad and the Persian Gulf near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Genesis 11:31-32 says when she and Abraham departed and on their way to Canaan, following the same trade route the wise men would have used along the Euphrates River, they stopped in Haran which was 650 miles northwest of Ur. From Haran, it was another 350 miles southwest to Jerusalem. So if the wise men came from the same region, they traveled approximately 1k miles! Which is a long long ways. Especially in those days. Today, truckers drive from coast to coast both ways in a week. Back then, the journey they went on was unheard of.
But traveling at night, so they could keep track of the star, for many weeks, months or even years, they diligently pursued it. Fast forwarding in history, Matthew 2:16 says, “Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men's report of the star's first appearance.” This is why we think the wise men traveled for as many as two years to reach Jesus and why Matthew 2:11 says when they did, that they found Mary and Jesus in a house not a stable.
Because by that time, probably long after Jesus was dedicated in the temple as Luke 2 records, they had found a suitable home to live in. But not even the arrival of the wise men and the inevitable stir they created with their specific questions prior to that in Jerusalem interested the leading priests and teachers of religious law enough to seek Jesus. They should have seen the star too. They knew of Zecharias’ prediction of a soon coming Messiah in Luke 1. They had undoubtedly heard the report of the shepherds in Luke 2:17. They were aware of Simeon’s prophecy at the dedication of Jesus in Luke 2:27-28. They had read Isaiah 45:14 that said foreign Gentiles would bring you “all their merchandise” and that “they will fall to their knees in front of you and say, ‘God is with you, and he is the only God.” They had read Isaiah 60:6 which said, “Vast caravans of camels will converge on you, the camels of Midian and Ephah. The people of Sheba will bring gold and frankincense and will come worshiping the LORD.”
But even with all these clues to the Advent, this missed it. And even while walking the malls and putting up trees and singing the songs, we can miss it too! If we don’t wake up and pay attention and show our kids and grandkids that Christmas is about Christ’s birthday not ours! It has a lot more to do with giving than receiving. I’ve said this before and I”ll say it again. What if you only gave your kids three gifts to your kids this Christmas? And you told them the reason is because that’s how many Jesus got. And that as a family, we’re going to give the same amount of money we spend on those three gifts to church so we can buy a bunch of goats. Why goats you ask? Because the Adventist Development and Relief Agency says in their 2010 Really Useful Gift Catalog that one breeding doe for $70 will give an impoverished family overseas additional income and access to milk for their children. One goat can help a family fight their way out of poverty! Did you know that? I had no idea!
But this is just one way we can be diligent about seeking the presence of Jesus this Christmas. And helping our children remember in a tangible way that Christmas is about Christ’s birthday not ours. So that’s why there are two goats in our church today. Feel free to feed them or pet them later on. Big thanks and WTG to Dave Case for finding us these goats and bringing them to remind us to be diligent about seeking the presence of Jesus this year.
We will still be collecting our regular church budget offerings at the back of the church by the exits doors and at the foot of the cross. Those monies will be used as usual. But when I’m done with my sermon, the monies collected each week in the special offering will go toward the goats. Does everyone understand? Please come prepared next time to contribute to this unusual offering if you aren’t prepared today. And thank you in advance for being diligent in seeking the presence of Jesus this Christmas. Jeremiah 29:13-14 says, “‘If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,’ says the LORD.”
Moving on, Matthew 2:3-11 describe how the wise men were not deterred by the apathy of the leading priests and teachers of religious law. Instead, it chronicles how the star kept moving and led them on toward Bethlehem. Which by the way is all commentators really need to explain how the star could be angels because stars are fixed in the sky. They don’t move. But Matthew 2:9 says this one moved. And led them directly to the house in Bethlehem where Jesus’ family had moved. And when they arrived, the Matthew 2:11 says these wise men, “Entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Some people think these gifts weren’t very practical. That a casserole or some Gerber number one or some diapers would have been much more appropriate. But as Henry Van Dyke’s classic little tale that was also made into an excellent little movie entitled The Other Wise Man explains, gold was a fantastic gift to give this family. Not only because it’s a gift fit for a king. And Revelation 19:16 says Jesus is the King of Kings. But also because it conveys ultimate respect because it had and still has extravagant value.
Amazing isn’t it? The first contribution to the Christian church so to speak came from people in the land where Abraham’s other son Ishmael fled and Isalm was born. Gentile foreigners. And that gold provided the funds required for Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt and live there while Herod was searching for the child to kill him as Matthew 2:13 says. Which leads us to point number two: What Jesus wants for Christmas is our most extravagant giving.
I know sometimes people get giving fatigue because churches often ask for money. And that’s true. We do. But what always puzzles me about this line of rationale is that so do malls and movies and cell phones. But we have no problem consistently giving, often extravagantly, to these things every month. But whenever there’s a tornado or devastating earthquake or the Advent rolls around and a church wants to help families get out of poverty and collect an additional special offering, perhaps some people start thinking, “Oh here they go again. The church is asking for money again.”
Well, yes we are. And to be totally honest, we will continue to do so. Because it costs something to love like Jesus. And Jesus understood that. He was willing to die to teach us this. To show the “full extent of His love” [John 13:1]. But still we chafe at learning this lesson. And unfairly criticize organized religion for asking for extravagant giving even though we spend so extravagantly for many other things.
But if it makes you feel any better, it recently occurred to me that Jesus Himself had to actually learn this lesson as well! I say so because Mark 7:24 says one day near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he left Galilee and went north to the region of Tyre. There, he ducked inside someone’s home hoping no one would notice. But a woman found him. A Gentile woman in a Gentile town where he went to get away from his growing crowd of followers for some R&R and lo and behold when He does, a woman in a town bristling with ethnic tension between Jewish farmers and Greek speaking city dwellers finds him and starts badgering him with questions.
According to Matthew’s account in Matthew 15:21-28, Jesus ignored her. And when the disciples, who considered her a pest, urged Jesus to send her away, Jesus actually agrees with them! Look at Matthew 15:21-28, “21 Then Jesus left Galilee and went north to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22A Gentile woman who lived there came to him, pleading, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! For my daughter is possessed by a demon that torments her severely.’ 23But Jesus gave her no reply, not even a word. Then his disciples urged him to send her away. ‘Tell her to go away,’ they said. ‘She is bothering us with all her begging.’ 24Then Jesus said to the woman, ‘I was sent only to help God's lost sheep—the people of Israel.’”
First Jesus ignores her. And then he agrees with his disciples who wanted her to be expelled. But verse 25 continues, “25But she came and worshiped him, pleading again, ‘Lord, help me!’” But even after she worshiped Him, Jesus coldly replies, “‘It isn't right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.’” If my kids were there, they would’ve said, “Ooh burn!”
But this woman is diligent in her seeking. And for Canaanites, unlike the Jews of that day, dogs could be pets. They were not unclean or excluded. Around the table that this woman knew, even the dogs got to eat. So bending Jesus’ words to her own purpose, she replies in Matthew 15:27, “‘That's true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters' table.’”
And according to Matthew, these words made a difference to Jesus. From that point forward in Jesus’ ministry, His emphasis shifted. Not only did He heal the Gentile woman’s daughter, but He also became more intentional about the Gentiles. For the first time, he began reaching out to Gentiles crowds instead of using their territory just to hide out. “28‘Dear woman,’ Jesus said to her, ‘your faith is great. Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was instantly healed.”
Apparently, Jesus learned how to become an extravagant giver as well. And if Jesus had to learn that, there’s no reason churches shouldn’t ask others to do so too. What Jesus wants for Christmas is for us to be diligent seekers of His presence [point number one] and to become extravagant givers for the sake of others [point number two]. Giving others our most precious commodities like the gold of our resources and the gold of our compassion. And lastly, point number three, he wants us to live this way faithfully and not just at Christmas.
Matthew 2:12 says, “12When it was time to leave, they [the wise men] returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.” Maybe you haven’t had a dream where God told you to ignore the crowds and to be diligent in your seeking and extravagant in your giving. But six-year old Ruby Bridges did. Some of you may remember that “In 1960, six-year old Ruby Bridges walked into school every day through a mob of hecklers. White citizens of New Orleans hated her for being the first black child to enter that city’s long-segregated public schools. Accompanied by federal marshals, she had to bear, twice a day, threats and catcalls from the glowering throng that lined the way to and from her school. And while she was inside, she found the hallways and classrooms empty. White families were conducting a boycott.”
“Ruby Bridges’s teachers began to wonder when she would fold under the abuse. But this little six-year-old persisted for months, a tiny, astonishing pioneer to civil rights and a powerful testimony to a life faithfully lived. A Harvard psychiatrist who came to know her at first believed she was denying her anxieties. Then he noticed she was smiling back at those who scorned her. He learned, too, that every night she was praying for them, and that she was keeping in her mind the prayer Jesus uttered while He was on the cross for the forgiveness of His executioners. Her strength, the psychiatrist could see, was like the sun.”
“It turned out that Ruby’s family, minister, and church friends were coaching and encouraging her shining witness, and their efforts had taken hold and were keeping her strong. Once, Ruby told her psychiatrist friend that God knew what was happening and might not ‘rush’ to do anything, ‘not right away.’ But this was no reason to stop what she was doing. She was convinced, she said, that ‘there will come a day, like you hear in church’. Her circumstances were painful and bewildering.” [For more read The Promise of Peace by Charles Scriven pp.72-73]. But at six years old, she faithfully lived for Jesus among some of the most hostile and hurtful people of her time.
What Jesus wants the most for Christmas is our faithful living— regardless of what everyone else is saying, doing, or not doing like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. And by His grace, and with His strength, it can be done. Isaiah 46:4 says it this way: “4 I will be your God throughout your lifetime—until your hair is white with age. I made you, and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you.”
That’s a promise for all of us. Whatever our age. May this Advent season draw you closer to Jesus and His presence in your life. And may we at Toledo First be extravagant givers of goats this year!!! Will the deacons please come forward as we collect the special offering?