On 22nd January, the UN is sponsoring the Geneva 2 conference to try and resolve the conflict in Syria. An Iranian delegation has not been invited. That is ironic since everyone, from the Royal Family and the Prime Minister, and even the US President and politicians of both main parties, are celebrating the visit of an Iranian delegation to Palestine this week. They were carrying funds for an opposition leader the Israeli authorities wanted dead. They met covertly with his family, then created a diplomatic incident by leaving the country without notifying the authorities. The historic visit of the Magi has a contemporary ring to it. Without Iran and Iranian involvement in the Nativity story, we would not have exchanged gifts on Christmas Day!
This morning, let us note how the Christmas story is a study in contrasts. The contrast between religious hypocrisy and spiritual integrity. Between the religious hyprocrisy of Herod and the Priests, and the spiritual integrity of the Shepherds and Magi. How are we to distinguish one from the other?
By the way they responded to God’s revelation of himself – in creation, in their conscience, but above all in God’s self-revelation in the scriptures. For the scriptures demand a response, not passive acquiescence nor mere lip service, but submission. Please observe the Kings Hypocrisy, the Scripture’s Testimony, and the Magi’s Integrity.
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem And 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 King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matthew 2:1-2, 7)
Herod was king of most of Israel as we know it today. His Grandfather was Jewish which gave him a rather tenuous link to the throne. He had been appointed King by the Roman Senate in 40BC and gained control of the country in 37BC. Unpopular with nationalists Herod was seen as a puppet of the Romans. Hypocritically he tried to please the Jews by rebuilding the Temple, while at the same time ruthlessly crushing resistance to Roman law.
“Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He 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.” (Matthew 2:7)
Herod was not about to hand over his throne to some usurper. Just because Jesus had the impeccable credential of being born in Bethlehem, the ancient seat of the Davidic line, Herod was not going to let a few prophecies stand in his way. Such was the political background to the climactic event of all history. Unbelief and hypocrisy were endemic. Herod’s depraved scheming makes the Borgias look like democrats.
Jesus birth divided people, as it always does. Go to a New Year party and mention Jesus in a conversation and observe the reaction. “I don’t go to church but…” “I may not be very religious but…” “I think religions is the cause of more war…” “Look at Northern Ireland…” I am so pleased for you…” “Is that the time? O dear, I think we need to be on our way, Happy New Year”
Here at the very beginning of Jesus’ life, we see two camps forming: one full of praise; the other full of hatred. Herod and the Magi stand in stark contrast, a contrast that runs like a fault line right through the life of Christ all the way to the cross and beyond to the present day. The Kings Hypocrisy Exposed.
“When 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. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘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.'” (Matthew 2:4-6)
The fulfilment of scripture is a dominant theme of Matthew’s Gospel. He shows how the scriptures promised that the king who would reign on David’s throne for ever, would be born in Bethlehem. Matthew shows God’s word was fulfilled in the smallest detail. God keeps His promises. How well do we know the scriptures and God’s promises to us? I invite you to join me in reading the Bible in 2014 – I recommend the One Year Bible.
However, it i es promised long ago that the ay, nice to see you, bye…s not enough just to know these promises. It is possible to be theologically correct without receiving Jesus.
The chief priests and teachers of the law knew perfectly well where the Kingly Messiah would be born. When asked by Herod they gave the correct answer. But it appears these facts were neither common knowledge nor acted upon, otherwise why did Herod have to even ask such a basic question about the central figure in Jewish eschatology? They had not taught these important facts of the Jewish faith to Herod or the people.
That is the perennial challenge for the Church today – to teach God’s word faithfully in a way that leads not only to understanding, but worship, obedience, and faith in action
Herod’s religious advisors did not seem to show any interest in the news that the Messiah may have already been born. Did they go to greet him? It seems not. The King’s Hypocrisy Exposed, the Scripture’s Testimony Unheeded,
“After 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. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him.
Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” (Matthew 2:8-12)
A tremendous amount of legend has accrued over the years around the Magi. There is no reason to suppose there were three of them, or that they were kings, or that we know their names. For centuries the magi had been a tribe of priests in Persia, but the name had also come to be applied to magicians and astrologers. In the ancient world most people believed in astrology. The steady courses of the stars and their respective positions represented the settled order of the universe.
When some new astronomical happening took place, it was reasonable to suppose that God was breaking into his ordered world and making known some news. When Julius Caesar died in 44BC, one of the most astonishing flukes in all history took place. A nova appeared in the sky above his funeral pyre. Everyone assumed that he had gone to join the pantheon of Gods. Thereafter stars and great men were definitely in fashion. Moreover a star formed part of Jewish Messianic expectation.
The prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24 was dear to Jewish hearts.
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel.” (Numbers 24:17)
So both Jews and Gentiles were predisposed towards seeing in the stars an indication of what they might expect. Whatever the Magi’s saw, whatever their religious background, is it not incredible that men with so little to go on, should venture so far, and face such uncertainties of finding the one the star pointed to? On seeing the Christ-child, the Magi bowed down and worshipped him. Today, if you want to visit the place associated with the birth of Christ one must bow down also. The entrance to the Church of the Nativity is a very low doorway. Everyone, except a child, has to bow their head in order to enter the birthplace of Jesus. It is a very profound moment in a pilgrimage.
“And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:3-5)
The Magi even recognised the baby Jesus as “King of the Jews,” a title which stands out in striking contrast with Herod’s position. It is a title that Matthew chooses not to use again until the crucifixion, when Pilate declares the same in three languages. Herod held jealously to his kingship by ruthless military repression. Jesus showed his true kingship by voluntary self-sacrifice. At Calvary he demonstrated that love dying for his enemies. The Magi choice of treaure reveals their understanding of his nature, calling and mission.
Gold = Royalty = Born to be King of the world
Frankincense = Divinity = Born the Son of God
Myrrh = Mortality = Born to die in our place
The wise men gave of their very best, because God had given His. In travelling so far, to worship Jesus they were really dedicating themselves to follow Jesus. Today is our opportunity. As the year is about to end and a new year begins, Jesus calls us to a journey of a lifetime of adventure in following Jesus.
If you are not yet sure who Jesus is, why he came and how we can know him, then join one of our Christianity Explored courses beginning soon. Those wise men travelled a long way to find Jesus. But their journey was worth it, so is ours. For the pagans, God used the stars to confirm what the Jewish scriptures foretold. The Kings religious hypocrisy drove him to murder, the Magi’s spiritual integrity drove them to worship. What does it drive you to do? Do not underestimate what the Spirit of God can do in the thirsty soul, the searching mind, the unsatisfied heart.
The coming of Christ by way of a Bethlehem manger, heralded by prophecies and a guiding star may seem strange today. But when we encounter Jesus personally, humble ourselves in his presence and worship him too, then the meaning of Christmas unfolds and the strangeness of the Magi’s visit vanishes. The Christmas story teaches us that Jesus’ first disciples were not Peter, James and John. Some 30 years before then, the good news of the gospel was being shared by Jewish Shepherds under Roman Occupation in Palestine and by Iranian Magi who travelled from afar. What did they have in common? Thankful in finding Him, humble in worshipping him, and joyful in sharing Him. Lets pray.
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