The King Has Come!
December 13, 2006
We begin with the words of Flannery O’Connor: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” Truth is truth whether we like it or not. The fact that I personally may object to the truth doesn’t matter. Those things that are objectively true remain true even if I doubt them or deny them or even if I rail against them. This is not a popular position to take in these days when “truth” is a jump ball determined by the latest Gallup Poll. If 51% of the people believe something, then it must be true. Or so we think.
But truth isn’t that easily pigeonholed. Above the main entrance to the University of Queensland in Australia, these words are engraved in stone: “Great is truth and mighty above all things.” Which strikes me as exactly the sort of exalted saying that you would find at the entrance to a university, and it is also the sort of old-fashioned idea that no one would choose today. It’s too confining, too narrow in its implication that there is such a thing as “truth” that you can find by searching. And it implies a sort of imperialism of ideas that runs counter to the anything-goes trend of the times. But it does remind us of the words of Jesus in John 8:32, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (ESV). It is truth that sets us free, not our opinions about the truth.
Pontius Pilate and Ernest Hemingway
Speaking for postmodernists everywhere, Pontius Pilate asked Jesus a question that resonates across the centuries: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Little did he know that the Truth was standing in front of him. Jesus himself had earlier declared, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). By those words our Lord indicated that truth is more than a series of propositions to be studied and memorized. Truth is also exceedingly personal. If you want to know the ultimate truth about life and death and the way to the Father, you need to know Jesus Christ. To know him is to know the truth. If you miss him, you’ve missed the ultimate truth of the universe.
But Pilate still has his friends today. Let me quote from one of Oak Park’s favorite sons, Ernest Hemingway. He was born in our village, grew up just a few blocks from here, and in 1917 graduated from the same high school most of our students attend. Here is his take on the question of truth: “There’s no one thing that is true. They’re all true.” Hmmm. The more I ponder that, the stranger it seems. Earlier this week a friend put a clipping from the December 17, 2001 Newsweek in my mailbox at church. It contains a quote from the speech given by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Evidently he had also been ruminating on the possibility of discovering the truth. Alas, he does not sound sanguine at all. “The idea that there is one people in possession of the truth, one answer to the world’s ills or one solution to humanity’s needs has done untold harm throughout history.” This is the sort of statement that invites simultaneous agreement and disagreement. But when you are through parsing it, you eventually conclude that he agrees more with Ernest Hemingway than with Flannery O’Connor.
“That’s What the Bible Says.”
As for me, I’m going to stand with Jesus on this one. A few days ago, I watched an interview with Anne Graham Lotz on the Fox News Channel. At one point one of the interviewers tried to trap her with a hard question about those who died at the World Trade Center on September 11. “Since you believe that you have to accept Christ to go to heaven, doesn’t that mean that the Jews and Muslims who died that day will go to hell?” I should pause here to say that when you go to “Interview School,” they teach you to run away from questions like that because you just can’t win. Anything you say can and will be used against you. Evidently Anne Graham Lotz skipped class the day they talked about this because she didn’t flinch and she didn’t change the subject. She quoted John 14:6 and declared that Jesus is the only way of salvation. She said we must believe in him to go to heaven. The interviewer tried again: “So you believe you have to accept Christ to go to heaven?” With a composed smile she simply replied, “That’s what the Bible says.” The interviewer didn’t have an answer for that one.
And that brings me to our text for today. Matthew 2:1-6 tells the mysterious story of the visit of the Magi to King Herod in Jerusalem. On one level this text is a very familiar story that most of us have seen in every Christmas pageant we’ve ever attended. We know all about the “Three Wise Men” because we grew up singing “We Three Kings.” And we know they found Jesus in the stable because that’s the way it is in every pageant: shepherds on the left, baby Jesus in the middle, and three nervous little boys dressed up like oriental punk rockers bringing gold and two others gifts they can’t pronounce. They’re usually wearing funny-looking hats, which help you know they are the Wise Men and not the shepherds. Most of this is simply tradition. The Bible doesn’t say there were only three Wise Men (or Magi). That number comes from the three gifts they brought—gold, frankincense and myrrh. (Perhaps you’ve seen the “Far Side” cartoon that shows a fourth Wise Man being turned away because he brought fruitcake as his gift.) And Matthew 2 makes it clear that the Magi found Jesus in a house in Bethlehem, meaning that they arrived some time after his birth, perhaps a few days or a few weeks or even up to a year later.
The main purpose of our text is to not to tantalize us with these details. Matthew 2 is all about truth. It brings us face to face with how different people respond when confronted with the truth of Jesus Christ. Some are positive, some are negative, and some people simply aren’t interested at all.
I. Some People Seek the Truth.
The story of the visit of the Magi is found only in Matthew’s gospel. All that we know about them we find in chapter 2. They show up in verse 1 and disappear in verse 12, leaving behind many unanswered questions:
1. Who are they and where did they come from?
2. How many were there?
3. What is the star they saw and how did it lead them to Bethlehem?
4. How long after the birth of Jesus did they arrive in Jerusalem?
5. How did they know that the baby was going to be the king of the Jews?
Because of the mystery and the unanswered questions, great legends grew up about them. Over the centuries, the Wise Men were given names—Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. They were venerated as saints and a tradition arose called the Adoration of the Magi. In fact, if you go to the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, you will find relics alleged to be the remains of the Wise Men.
It all begins this way: “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?’” (vv. 1-2). Notice that the Wise Men are called “Magi from the east.” That’s all we are told about them. The term “Magi” is a Persian word that referred to a special class of priests in the Persian Empire. We know from other sources that the Magi had existed for hundreds of years before the time of Christ. They had their own religion (they are usually thought to have been followers of Zoroastrianism), their own priesthood, and their own writings. The book of Daniel makes it clear that they existed in his day and it even seems that Daniel was appointed head over the cast of the Magi in the time of King Darius.
Who were the Magi? They were the professors and philosophers of their day. They were brilliant and highly educated scholars who were trained in medicine, history, religion, prophecy and astronomy. They were also trained in what we would call astrology. In our day astrology has gotten a deservedly bad rap. But in the beginning astrology was connected with man’s search for God. The ancients studied the skies in order to find the answers to the great questions of life—Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? There is a difference between astronomy and astrology. Astronomy is the science of the study of the stars. Astrology is the belief that there is a connection between the position of the stars and human destiny. The Magi were experts in both astronomy and astrology and claimed to be able to divine the future.
The important fact for us to know is that they were highly influential in Persia. They were in fact advisors to the king. While they were not kings, it would not be wrong to call them king-makers because they functioned as political advisors to the Persian rulers. Finally, they were highly educated men who thought deeply about life and consequently it is perfectly legitimate to call them “Wise Men.”
Looking for a Baby
But why have they traveled so far from home? It was 1,000 miles from Persia to Israel. Why have they made such a treacherous journey? The answer is, they have come to see the baby born king of the Jews. This is fascinating. They knew a baby had been born but they didn’t know where. They knew he was a king but didn’t know his name. So they come to Jerusalem—the capital city—seeking help. They also assume that everyone must know about this baby. But a great surprise awaits them.
We are greatly helped by this fact: We know that the Jews and Persians had intermingled for at least 500 years. It seems that the Magi considered Daniel (who was a good Jew) as one of their own. Since the time of Daniel, the Persians had known of the Jewish expectation of a Messiah. It is possible that they even knew from the prophecy of the “70 weeks” in Daniel 9 the approximate time of his appearing. What they did not know was the exact time. When they saw the star, they knew the time had come.
Now lest that seem like mere speculation, let me put it this way: Everything we know about the Jews, the Magi, and the history of the ancient near east makes this story very likely:
* We know that the Jews were looking for a Messiah.
* We know that the Magi looked to the stars for guidance.
* We know that the Jews and the Magi had intermingled for at least 500 years.
* We know that the Magi would notice any new sign in the sky.
* Therefore, it should not surprise us that the Magi would travel to Jerusalem to greet this new Jewish king.
The story in Matthew 2 perfectly fits with everything we know.
Most of our pictures of the Magi show three guys dressed like cone-heads riding three camels across the desert. Nothing could be farther from reality. There is no way the Magi traveled 1,000 miles across the desert by themselves. The whole notion is ludicrous. In those days, the only way you could travel in the desert was in a large caravan. The Magi would have swept into Jerusalem with pomp and circumstance and covered with 1,000 miles worth of dust. At a minimum they would have brought with them a full military escort along with their servants. The total party could have amounted to more than 300 men. No wonder all of Jerusalem was buzzing.
The Magi are pagans who have been drawn to Jesus. Consider how little they knew. They had seen a star and they knew a baby called “the king of the Jews” had been born. And yet with nothing more than that, they risked everything and left their homeland to find the baby, bring him gifts, and worship him. This is the one of the greatest examples of true faith in the entire Bible. They didn’t know very much about Jesus but what they knew spurred them to action.
When they got to Jerusalem, they assumed that everyone would know where the baby was. But they were in for a great surprise as they discovered that not everyone shared their desire to find Jesus.
II. Some People Fear the Truth.
The reaction of Herod is fascinating. Matthew 2:3 says that “when Herod heard the news, he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” The word “disturbed” really means to “shake violently.” Herod was all shook up. It will help you understand what happened if you know that Herod the Great is very old, very sick, and very nearly dead. He is a dying man tottering on an unstable throne. He has been in power for over 40 years and has proven to be a clever and cruel man. Like all despots, he held tightly to the reins of power and brutally removed anyone who got in his way. Over the years he killed many people:
It was the murder of his wife that drove him mad. He killed her because he thought she was a threat to his power. But he never got over her. Even though he was only 44 when he killed her, and even though he lived to be 70, her murder was the beginning of the end.
You see, above everything else, Herod the Great was a killer. That was his nature. He killed out of spite and he killed to stay in power. Human life meant nothing to him. The great historian Josephus called him “barbaric,” another writer dubbed him “the malevolent maniac,” yet another named him “the great pervert.” Perhaps his basic character can best be seen by an incident in the year 7 B.C. Herod is an old man now. He has been in power 41 years. He knows he doesn’t have much longer to live. Word comes that his sons are plotting to overthrow him. They are sons by his late wife Mariamne. He orders them put to death … by strangulation. No wonder Caesar Augustus said, “It is safer to be Herod’s sow than his son.”
He had been given the title “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate but he was no Jew. By birth he was an Idumean, a descendent of the ancient Edomites whose father was Esau. The Jews hated him and chafed under his brutal rule. The notion of a baby “born” king of the Jews was a direct threat to Herod’s throne. No wonder he tried to kill Jesus. In his eyes, he had no choice. It was kill or be killed, and now in the twilight of his life, he is ready to kill anyone who threatens him, even a tiny, helpless baby.
Herod stands as a symbol for the kind of world Jesus entered. He represents the world’s welcoming committee for the Son of God. It’s not the way you thought it would be, is it? Jesus is born and the rulers try to kill him. The Bible says, “He came to what was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11). Herod stands for the bloodthirsty, cruel, vindictive side of the world system. A world where human life is cheap. A world where killing is accepted and even expected.
Herod died but his spirit lives on. To this day there are those who are offended by Jesus, even by the mere mention of his name. They oppose spiritual truth and want to erase every trace of Christmas from public life. This group includes those cowardly school administrators who want even the word “Christmas” banished from the classroom and the lawyers who sue to have the manger scenes removed from city halls across America. Herod would be proud of them.
III. Some People Ignore the Truth.
Before Herod can get rid of the baby, he must put on a pleasant face. He has to seem interested in helping these strange visitors find the Christ child. So he turns to the scribes and priests for advice. He has only one question: Where is this child to be born? The scribes don’t have to look it up. They already know the answer. Seven hundred years earlier the prophet Micah had predicted the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem. That was common knowledge in Israel. Little children learned that in Sabbath School before they were six years old. It’s hard to believe that Herod didn’t know it.
If you add what the scribes knew to what the Wise Men figured out, you surely conclude that the signs of Jesus’ coming were clear enough for anyone to see. It is sometimes said that God always speaks loud enough for a willing ear to hear. He certainly did that here. The Magi knew and did something; the scribes knew and did nothing. This fact is all the more shocking when you consider that the scribes were the professional students of the Torah of God, the part of the Bible we call the Old Testament. From youth these men had spent their days reading, studying, memorizing and debating it. Some of them knew the first five books of the Bible by memory. In Hebrew. Others had memorized the Psalms. Still others memorized the prophets. They knew every prophecy of the Messiah’s coming by heart. And they even knew what Rabbi so-and-so had said about this verse and what Rabbi this-and-that had said about that verse. And they could even quote the comments of the rabbis about what other rabbis had said. The scribes knew the Old Testament backwards and forwards. They had it down cold. It would be like gathering the theological faculty of Wheaton, Trinity, Moody, Dallas, Westminster and Talbot and then adding the scholars from Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge. Here in Jerusalem you had the finest Bible scholars in the whole world.
So when Herod asked, “Where is the Messiah going to be born?” they didn’t have to use a lifeline. No one said, “Do you mind if we phone a friend?” They were the friends other people phoned with hard questions. No one had said, “Regis, let’s go 50-50 on this one.” They knew the answer immediately. Micah 5:2 said that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. End of story, except I imagine one of the scribes said to his buddy, “I hope the king asks us a hard question next time.”
Six Miles from Jesus
Bethlehem is only six miles from Jerusalem. So close that you could walk it in less than two hours. Today Bethlehem is like a suburb of Jerusalem. Back then people lived in Bethlehem and went to Jerusalem to buy and sell and to go to the Temple. It was an easy journey on good roads.
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.
Six miles isn’t very far. It’s nine miles from Oak Park to downtown Chicago. If we took the whole congregation and started walking down Chicago Avenue, we would travel six miles in about 90 minutes. But the scribes didn’t care enough to get involved. They wouldn’t even go six miles.
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.
So close, yet so far. All that knowledge did them no good. The Magi knew so little, yet traveled so far. The scribes knew so much, yet they wouldn’t even venture six miles down the road.
Who Looks Worse?
The scribes represent the religiously indifferent. These are the insiders who know all the facts and do nothing about it. They don’t care enough to get excited. When Herod asked where the baby was to be born, they knew the answer. They told him where to look, but didn’t care enough to investigate for themselves. Bethlehem was only six miles from Jerusalem but even that was too far to go. It was all academic to them. “Hope you have a nice trip. If you find the Messiah, let us know.”
They should have been singing and dancing because the Messiah had come; instead they ignored his birth. Who looks worse? Herod or the scribes? The scribes look worse because Herod, for all his excesses, is at least acting consistently with his basic nature. By contrast, these men knew the truth and did nothing about it. 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.
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.
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. In the end 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 more noble 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.
What will you do with Jesus?
Some hate him.
Some ignore him.
Some seek him.
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.”
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.” And 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. Amen.