Six Miles From Jesus –
Sermon 23 of 27 from the Christmas Messages series
December 2009 – How long would it take to walk six miles?
If you are in good shape, you could walk it in a couple of hours. If the terrain is relatively flat, you could easily cover six miles in an afternoon.
That’s not much of a hike.
If you wanted to walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, it’s only six miles so you could start in the morning and be there in the afternoon.
If you ever visit the Holy Land, you’ll see what I mean. The land of Israel is tiny compared to the United States. The whole country is only about 8500 square miles. That’s roughly the size of New Jersey and only a bit smaller than Vermont. From Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south is only 150 miles. For those of us who are used to thinking about the distance between, say, Miami and Seattle, visiting the Holy Land forces us to adopt an entirely different way of thinking. On a typical tour, you may wake up in Caesarea on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and end up next to the Sea of Galilee that evening. In between you might visit Mt. Carmel, Megiddo, Nazareth and Cana. Along the way you’ll pass by the sites of many of the Old Testament events. And it’s very typical to start at the Sea of Galilee, visit Capernaum, the Mount of the Beatitudes, Korazin, Jericho and end the day in Jerusalem. It’s a full day but not because of the distance. The visitor to the land of the Bible soon realizes that most of the key events took place within 100 miles of Jerusalem.
One of the most important events took place six miles from Jerusalem.
Two thousand years ago there was not much there. Bethlehem was indeed a “little town” as described in the familiar Christmas carol by Phillips Brooks. Although well-known as the birthplace of King David, the town itself was home to perhaps 200 permanent residents. Because it was close to Jerusalem, we can assume that the various inns and guesthouses were full of pilgrims making their way to and from Jerusalem and on their way to various ancestral hometowns to pay the census tax required by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1-3).
It was only six miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
Just hold this thought in your mind. Jerusalem and Bethlehem were next-door neighbors, the first a large city and the second a tiny hamlet that would not normally be a major destination. Bethlehem in that day was a place you stayed on your way to the big city. You spent the night in Bethlehem and the next day you walked six miles to Jerusalem.
Six miles. That’s not very far.
Against that backdrop we read Matthew’s account of the coming of the Magi:
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. 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. “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 2:1-6).
So many questions come to mind when we read this:
Who were the Magi?
Where did they come from?
How far did they journey?
How many Magi came to Jerusalem?
What was the “star” they saw in the east?
How did they know what it meant?
How did it lead them?
Why did they come to worship the “king of the Jews"?
Why was the whole city disturbed?
I want to focus on just one question that the text doesn’t entirely answer:
Why didn’t the Jewish leaders go to Bethlehem?
It was so close. Only six miles away.
If they knew that the Messiah was to be born there, why didn’t they go and check it out for themselves?
The Magi knew so little, came so far, and gave so much.
The teachers of the law knew so much, were so near, and did so little.
It was such a short journey.
Only six miles.
I am writing these words from my home in Tupelo, Mississippi so I will state the matter in local terms.
If Jesus came to Verona, would we go and see him?
If someone said that Jesus was in Belden, would we stop what we were doing?
If Jesus showed up in Saltillo, would we go and greet him?
What if Jesus came to Pontotoc or New Albany or Mooreville or Fulton, would we be too busy to go see him?
If Jesus came to a nearby town, would we go and see him?
Think of all that the teachers of the law knew about the coming of the Messiah:
He would be born of the Seed of the woman. That’s in Genesis 3:15.
He would be a descendant of Shem. That’s in Genesis 9:26.
He would be of the seed of Abraham. That’s in Genesis 12:1-3.
He would be a descendant of Isaac. That’s in Genesis 22:18.
He would be a descendant of Jacob. That’s in Genesis 28:14.
He would be of the tribe of Judah. That’s in Genesis 49:10.
He would be a “son of David." That’s in 2 Samuel 7:11,12,16.
He would be born of a virgin. That’s in Isaiah 7:14.
He would be born in Bethlehem. That’s in Micah 5:2.
We can summarize in five simple statements what the Jewish scholars knew about the Messiah:
1. He will be a Jew.
2. He will come from the tribe of Judah.
3. He will be a descendant of David.
4. He will be born in Bethlehem.
5. He will be born of a virgin.
Who were these scribes and chief priests and teachers of the law that Herod consulted? They were the best and brightest minds of the day. As professional students of the Torah of God, they studied the Old Testament day and night. They knew the Word of God, loved it, revered it, learned it, debated it, studied it, and memorized it. Some of them had memorized the first five books of the Bible in Hebrew. Others had memorized the Psalms in Hebrew.
When we were in Jerusalem in October, we saw a modern-day scribe at work when we visited the Temple Institute. A young man dressed in black and wearing a skullcap was bent over a slanted desk. We watched as he painstakingly transcribed each word of the Old Testament, carefully writing one Hebrew letter at a time. He was taking his time, watching carefully, checking his work, making sure he didn’t miss a letter. In that respect nothing has changed in thousands of years. When we visited the Western Wall, we saw the Jewish men near the wall, standing and chanting passages from the Old Testament and reciting the traditional Hebrew prayers, following ancient tradition handed down across the generations.
If they knew the truth, why didn’t they go to Bethlehem?
When Herod asked where the Christ was to be born, immediately the religious leaders knew the answer, in Bethlehem of Judea because that’s what the prophet Micah had foretold some 700 years earlier.
They knew it by heart.
They didn’t have to look it up.
To use a modern term, they didn’t have to use a lifeline or say, “Regis, let’s go 50/50 on that one.” I’m sure one of them must have smiled and said, “I hope the king asks us a hard question next time."
If they knew the truth, why didn’t they go to Bethlehem? Let me suggest three answers to that question.
1. Their knowledge made them intellectually lazy.
Did you know it’s possible to know too much? You can study so long, compare so many opinions, read so many books, and debate so many ideas that you never get around to making a commitment to anything. You are “ever learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). Knowledge is good but at some point you’ve got to decide what you personally believe. It’s not enough to say, “I’ve studied religion. I know what the Hindus believe, I know what the Muslims believe, I listen to all the experts, I’ve read the latest books, and I can intelligently discourse on the merits of all the major denominations.” Well and good. But of what use is your great knowledge if you never make a personal commitment?
As long as Jesus is just a theory to us, he will be of no benefit to us personally.
2. Their religion made them spiritually indifferent.
Answering Herod’s question was like playing a game of Bible Trivia where you know all the answers in advance. But religion, even good religion, even Bible-based religion, can deaden the heart and mind. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of saying, “I’m Baptist” or “I’m Catholic” or “I’m Lutheran” or “I’m Presbyterian” or “I’m Brethren” or “I’m Church of Christ” or “I’m Episcopalian,” as if going to heaven is determined by church affiliation. It’s too easy for all of us to “play by the rules” of whatever church we attend and still keep Christ at arm’s length. As long as Jesus is just a theory to us, he will be of no benefit to us personally.
3. Their background made them culturally arrogant.
I think this may be a central reason. Think about it for a moment. One day some strangers show up in your town, claiming to have seen a star in the east that led them in search of a baby born “king of the Jews.” What a bizarre story. And who are these guys anyway? How do we know they’re for real? Who sent them? Where did they come from? And what was this star? Where is it? Why can’t we see it?
Plus they look different. They talk different. They dress strange. Everything about them screams, “We’re not from around here.” No wonder the town was in an uproar. Strange doings in Jerusalem for sure.
It’s always easy to discount people who aren’t like us.
It’s always easy to discount people who aren’t like us.
Charles Spurgeon remarks upon the Jewish leaders this way:
Those who should have been leaders were no leaders; they would not even be followers of that which is good, for they had no heart towards Christ.
I underlined the last phrase because the heart is always the issue. If the heart is not right, no amount of religion can save it. If the heart is not right, no amount of Bible knowledge can make up the difference.
In his commentary on this passage, John Calvin makes the same point:
It is truly an instance of base sluggishness, that not one of the Jews offers himself as an escort to those foreigners, to go and see the King who had been promised to their own nation.
That’s a fascinating way to put it. He also calls it “wicked ingratitude.” Perhaps they feared Herod’s anger if they went with the Magi. But so what? Such fear shows how far the Jews had sunk in spiritual bondage.
They were six miles from Jesus!
You could walk it in two or three hours easily. Suppose we emptied the church and went for a six-mile hike. Most of us could do it without any major problem.
But whether from fear or ingratitude or sluggishness or indifference, the Jewish leaders wouldn’t go six miles to see Jesus.
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus ... Only six miles.
Born to set thy people free ... Only six miles.
O come, all ye faithful ... Only six miles.
O come, let us adore him ... Only six miles.
Six miles. And none of the scribes cared enough to go and check out the rumor that the long-awaited Messiah had been born. Six miles from Jesus. Six miles from salvation. Six miles from forgiveness. Six miles from eternal life. They were too busy studying the Bible to see for themselves.
It is possible to know a great deal and still miss the truth.
As I read Matthew 2, one fact strikes me above all others. Everybody involved had the same basic information. They all knew a baby had been born in Bethlehem and they all knew who the baby was. Herod knew and tried to kill him; the scribes knew and ignored him; the Wise Men knew and worshipped him.
The Bible scholars knew the answer to the question, knew that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, but their knowledge condemned them all the more because they did nothing about the truth they knew. Let no one miss this solemn lesson: It is possible to know a great deal and still miss the truth.
For all those who feel they are too busy to join the search for Jesus, C. S. Lewis wrote these words:
Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.
Jesus stands at the end of life’s road for all of us. There can be no middle ground. To ignore him is the same as to hate him because you end up without him either way. And perhaps hatred is nobler than casual disinterest because when you hate, you at least must pay attention to the object of your hatred, and that very attention may lead someday to a change of heart. To ignore Jesus altogether means to live as if he doesn’t matter at all. But no one can ignore him forever. We all have an appointment with Christ sooner or later.
Jesus stands at the end of life’s road for all of us.
The ultimate question is not how someone else responds but how you respond to Jesus. That’s really the only thing that matters. Are you with Herod or with the scribes or with the Wise Men? Are you hostile to Jesus? Are you too busy to get involved? Are you coming to worship him as Savior and Lord?
“Make My Heart a Manger”
One final story and we are done In one of his books Jess Moody tells of meeting Rose Kennedy (mother of President John F. Kennedy) many years ago at a Bible study he was teaching. That night he challenged his hearers to make their hearts ready to meet the Lord because life is short for all of us, and no one knows what the future may hold. When the meeting was over, Rose Kennedy spoke to Jess Moody privately. “I’ve done what you were talking about tonight,” she said. She went on to say that as a young bride, she had been enamored by the power of money. She became selfish, living only for her own desires. Then she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Soon it became apparent that something was wrong with her daughter. Medical tests revealed that her daughter had been born with severe mental retardation and would have to be institutionalized for her entire life. Rose Kennedy said that she and her husband were devastated by the news. Then the devastation turned eventually to enormous anger at God. “How could you have done this to us?” she asked the Lord. The anger became a kind of corrosive bitterness that drained every bit of joy from her life.
One night she and her husband had been scheduled to attend a social gathering. They decided at the last minute not to go when she realized that her anger had consumed her. She was afraid of what she might do or say if someone asked about their daughter’s condition. And that’s when it happened. A maid who worked for the family spoke to her. “Mrs. Kennedy, I’ve been watching you for the last few weeks and I’ve seen how angry you are. If you don’t do something, it’s going to ruin you. I think you should pray this prayer: “O Lord, make my heart a manger where the Christ child can be born.”
“Make my heart a manger where the Christ child can be born.”
Rose Kennedy told Jess Moody that she was so angry that she fired the maid on the spot. But that night when she went to bed, she couldn’t sleep. Tossing and turning, she couldn’t get that simple prayer out of her mind. Finally, she knelt by her bed, and in an act of deep surrender she prayed, “O Lord, make my heart a manger where the Christ child can be born.” In that moment, in the depth of the night, when she cried out in anguish, God heard and answered her prayer. “I’ve always been religious, you know. I’m a Catholic and I’ve always believed in Jesus.” But this was different. On this night, she opened her heart to Christ in a new way, and her heart did indeed become a manger where Christ could be born in her. Love replaced the anger that had gripped her soul. And the end of the story is this: She rehired the maid who stayed with the family until she died many years later.
Many of us need to pray that prayer today. Perhaps we’ve been religious and no doubt many do believe in Jesus. But for some of us, that belief has never led to a moment of personal commitment. And it’s possible that in these days leading up to Christmas, anger, worry, fear, doubt, and other inner distractions are draining all the joy from your heart. So this is the invitation from the Lord to you. Open your heart. Let go of your doubts and fears. Give up your anger. Say farewell to your bitterness. Let go of the things that chain you to the past. Say this prayer: “O Lord, make my heart a manger where the Christ child can be born.” Those words could change your life today. Christ never turns away from any heart that is open to him. Those who seek him will find him every time. May that be your experience during this Christmas season.
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