Follow the Christmas Star
December 23, 2001
This isn’t exactly the sermon I planned to preach on the Sunday before Christmas, but I don’t suppose that will surprise anyone since Christmas itself comes as a relief at the end of a year that has not been what we thought it would be. If one searches for glimmers of light on the horizon, I would point out that the Bears are in the playoffs for the first time in many years. That’s good news. And the Cubs signed Moises Alou this week, which they say is good news, but we’re still several months away from baseball season. Or perhaps I should put it this way: Before we get to baseball, we’ve got to get through winter, if winter ever shows up this year. Tom Skilling of WGN says that the period from mid-October to mid-December this year is the warmest on record.
Where is the snow? I recall that 13 years ago when my family moved to Oak Park, it snowed in late October and I didn’t know what to do. Several weeks later I asked Brian Bill, who was on our staff at that time, when the snow would melt. When he said, “April,” I thought he was kidding. In one of those early years I recall that we went through something like 24 straight days without ever seeing the sun. I got nervous and edgy just like everyone else and dreamed about moving to Yuma where the sun shines at midnight. But over time I got used to Chicago winters and even began to look forward to them. For one thing, falling snow is beautiful. For another, when it gets really cold, even the criminals stay indoors. At least some of them do, which is comforting when you consider that this week we were told that Chicago may surpass New York in the number of homicides in 2001.
Things have changed, haven’t they? If you have e-mail, you’ve probably gotten that message that’s been floating around the Internet about how this year we’re all more concerned about things like family and home and what we generally call “traditional values.” The events of September 11 have left an indelible mark on the American soul. We aren’t spending as much this year, we aren’t traveling as much, and we’re trying to reconnect with the things we somehow lost along the way.
From Bethlehem to New York to Oak Park
It’s amazing how the terrorist attacks have intruded into our Christmas celebration. Several weeks ago, during the first presentation of our Christmas program, I was sitting in the back of the sanctuary watching the program as it moved from scene to scene. Everything seemed to be in order. First the children, then Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, then the shepherds, then the Wise Men. Suddenly a man in a business suit stood up and apparently interrupted the program. Since I was sitting in the back, I had no idea who it was and for a second, just for a fleeting second, I thought someone had decided to disrupt our Christmas program. Then I realized it was an actor playing the part of a businessman who lost his job because of September 11. Toward the end there was a scene where the dialogue flashed back and forth between a Roman centurion and the businessman. It was eerie and shocking and even a bit disconcerting. What does Christmas have to do with September 11? We come to church to forget those things, and here they are right in front of us. We were bouncing back and forth between the first century and the 21st-century, from Bethlehem to New York to Oak Park and back again.
And it dawned on me that this was a good thing, a very good thing, because even those of us who truly believe that the Bible is the Word of God and that Jesus truly was born of a virgin, in a manger, in Bethlehem, surrounded by angels and shepherds and Wise Men, even for us it’s very easy to put the Christmas story in the category of “religious myth” or “Christian fairy tale.” We would never say it that way, or even believe it that way, but there is a danger from viewing the sweetness of a Christmas pageant where all our children are so fresh-faced and adorable and everything is so clean and neat and nice, and the lighting is just right, the costumes so well done, and the staging so powerful, and the music so inspiring, that we can subconsciously think that this is the way it really was.
But it wasn’t that way at all. It wasn’t as beautiful or as serene as it appears in our pageants. And it certainly wasn’t as clean or neat or nice. The whole story of Jesus’ birth is set against a backdrop of official indifference and hostility. The scribes knew and didn’t care; Herod knew and tried to kill the baby. To make matters worse, he lied to the Magi in Matthew 2:6 when he sent them to Bethlehem to find the baby. “Tell me where the baby is,” he said, “so that I might go and worship him, too.” That was a bald-faced lie. And as far as we can tell, the Magi evidently believed him. And why not? If Herod feigned interest in the baby, why shouldn’t they take him at his word? They had come so far to find the infant; it was natural for them to assume that everyone else would be as excited as they were.
Christmas Under Attack
But it wasn’t that way then. And it’s not that way now. Christmas was a threat to Herod and it threatens many people today. Here are a few examples:
- In Seattle, a King County official sent out a memo asking county employees not to say “Merry Christmas” and to be “religion neutral.”
- In Frederick County, Maryland, a school employee was prohibited from handing out Christmas cards on a public school campus.
- Red poinsettias were banned from the Ramsey Court House in St. Paul, Minnesota because they offended one person who believes the flowers are a symbol of Christianity.
- A Pennsylvania fourth-grader was stopped from giving Christmas cards to classmates.
- Two Minnesota middle-schoolers got in trouble for wearing red and green scarves in a Christmas skit and for ending the skit with a Merry Christmas wish for the audience.
In the words of Bill O’Reilly, “’Tis the season to be dopey.” He goes on to say this following:
“Of course, all of these things are completely insane, but they are definitely symptomatic of what America is facing: A well-organized campaign to destroy tradition and replace it with the bland philosophy that nothing is any good unless it includes everybody.
“Let’s walk through this: Christmas is a federal holiday. That means that the word Christmas is legal in every way and can be used as a greeting or a description, or whatever you want. Christmas exists because of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a man who changed the course of Western civilization. A man whose philosophy became the cornerstone of democratic thinking. All men were created equal in the eyes of Jesus and in the eyes of America’s founding fathers.” (Bill O’Reilly, “Santa is Appalled,” December 22, 2001)
Christmas on the Editorial Page
Every word he said is true, and it deserves repeating. But there is much more to mention. Have you noticed the editorial cartoons in the last week? On Thursday, the Chicago Tribune carried a two-panel cartoon that showed two police officers in a squad car. One is reading from a sheet about how to spot suspicious people: “Male … bearded … Middle-Eastern-looking … Suspicious behavior—Yep, I’d say they fit the profile.” The next panel shows the Wise Men on camels under the Star of Bethlehem. One of the officers in the police car says to them, “Ok—Let’s see some I.D.” Pretty good, I thought. Then yesterday, the Tribune carried four cartoons with a strongly biblical cast. One is a traditional manger scene with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, surrounded by angels. The star shines overhead. Everyone has a halo. The caption reads, “The Original Lord of the Rings.” That’s entirely accurate. Then there was a cartoon depicting a news reporter outside Bethlehem. In the distance smoke rises from the village, almost but not quite obscuring the Star. The reporter holds a microphone and says, “A woman, an infant and a carpenter were pinned down near a manger as Jewish and Palestinian militants clash.”
I do not find those cartoons blasphemous or offensive at all. To the contrary, they remind me once again that the Christmas story is a real story about real people. That Mary was pregnant with Jesus just as the Bible says. When they came to Bethlehem, there really was no room in the inn. Herod was so sick with paranoid delusions that he slaughtered the infant boys of Bethlehem in a desperate attempt to kill Jesus. It all happened just as the Bible says. Francis Schaeffer warned us repeatedly of the danger of taking the Bible and relegating it to what he called “upper story” truth, like Aesop’s Fables or the stories of Dr. Seuss. Or even the stories about Santa Claus and Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman. When we treat the Christmas story as something other than sober, historical truth, we drain it of its true meaning and reduce it to the level of a nice, sweet fairy tale that teaches us to be good and love each other because that’s what Jesus would want us to do.
The Bible and Jesus’ Birth
Now I’m all for being good and loving each other, and even loving our enemies, but that doesn’t begin to exhaust the meaning of the birth of Christ. Consider some of these great biblical statements (All quoted from the English Standard Version):
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).
“For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9).
“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (II Corinthians 5:19).
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
“And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end’” (Luke 1:30-33).
“Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’” (Matthew 1:20-21).
“And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger’” (Luke 2:10-12).
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (II Corinthians 8:9).
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:5-7).
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Jesus is More Than a Great Leader
I draw from this several important conclusions:
- The birth of Jesus Christ is more than the birth of an ordinary baby. It represents the literal entrance of Almighty God into the human race. As John 1:14 puts it, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It means that the Son of God, who from all eternity was and is and always will be the Second Person of the Trinity, humbled himself, laying aside the outward manifestation of his deity, and entered our world through the womb of a virgin named Mary.
- Jesus is much more than a moral teacher or the founder of a great world religion. He is much more than the foundation of Western Civilization. He is the true Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, the promised Seed of the Woman, and the One predicted by all the prophets. He is the Savior of the world. And apart from him, there is no salvation.
- We should not be surprised that the world either ignores or attacks Christmas. The world has never been a friend to the Son of God. The people of the world, for the most part, were too busy with their own pursuits 2,000 years ago to pay attention to a baby born to a peasant family in the little village of Bethlehem in the region of Judea. It just didn’t matter. And some, like Herod, found his birth a personal threat, and so they did what they could to kill him.
He was born in the shadow of the cross. When Simeon took the infant in his arms and offered this word of divine prophecy: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:34 ESV). Did you get that? Jesus is a “sign that will be spoken against.” Meaning that even though he is God’s “sign” of salvation, many will speak against him. Some will call him Savior; others will “fall” because of him. As Jesus himself said many years later, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). How strange to hear those words at Christmastime. Not peace, but a sword. But should it surprise us? The Word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword. Jesus cuts both ways, revealing the thoughts and intents of every heart. When you see him, you have to choose. You can’t remain neutral forever.
There is one final conclusion I want to mention:
4. His birth was attended by miracles so that we would know for certain that he has come from God. Sometimes it is said that Jesus was born “the usual way.” That’s true if you consider being born of a virgin “the usual way.” And if your idea of a normal birth includes being announced by angels and having strangers from a distant land follow a star to find your home, then it truly is “the usual way.” Not to speak of angels appearing in visions and dreams and babies leaping in the womb and things like that.
The Intersection of Heaven and Earth
As I read Matthew 2, it seems to me that there is a very delicate interplay between the human and the divine. Herod’s hatred is very human and, on one level at least, entirely understandable. He is a sick, deranged, paranoid old man, an evil toad squatting on the throne. He hates everyone and everything so it’s not surprising that he hates Jesus. And it’s not surprising that he lied to the Magi about his intentions. You don’t get to be king without being good at that sort of thing.
And the scribes seem to be just too busy to get involved. They are so religious that they don’t have any time for Jesus. We all know lots of people like that today, don’t we?
The Magi represent the pagan people of the world who come from distant lands to bring their tribute to the infant King. While his own people reject him, the Gentiles bow before him with costly gifts. J. C. Ryle draws an encouraging application from the appearance of the Magi in the Christmas story:
The Lord Jesus has many ‘hidden ones’ like these Wise Men. Their history on earth may be as little known as that of Melchizedek, and Jethro, and Job. But their names are in the book of life, and they will be found with Christ at his appearing. It is well to remember this. We must not look round the earth and say hastily, “All is barren.” The grace of God is not tied to places and families. The Holy Ghost can lead people to Christ without the help of any outward means. Men may be born in dark places of the earth, like these Wise Men, and yet like them be made “wise unto salvation.” There are some traveling to heaven at this moment, of whom the Church and the world know nothing. They flourish in secret places like the “lily among thorns,” and seem to “waste their sweetness on the desert air.” But Christ loves them, and they love Christ. (Expository Thoughts on Matthew, p. 10).
Gifts Fit for a King
When they finally found Jesus, the Magi presented him with three costly gifts. The early church fathers said that gold represented the wealth and power of a king. Frankincense was used in the temple worship of the Lord. It represents his deity—He is truly God born in human flesh. Then there is myrrh—a kind of perfume made from the leaves of the cistus rose. It was used in beauty treatments, but when mixed with vinegar it became an anesthetic. After a person died, myrrh was used to anoint the body and prepare it for burial. John 19:39 tells us that Jesus’ body was bound in linen wrappings along with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes. So the gift of myrrh pictures his suffering and death.
—Gold pointing to his majesty … for he is king.
—Frankincense pointing to his deity … for he is God.
—Myrrh pointing to his humanity … for he is destined to die.
Did the Magi understand all this? No, not at all. But God arranged it so that their gifts to the Holy Child would point us to who he is and why he came.
The Baby Who Will Rule the World
One final question deserves some consideration: When the Magi finally found the baby Jesus, were they disappointed? They might have been. After all they been through, after such a long journey, after the detour in Jerusalem, did what they find seem anticlimactic? It might have seemed that way.
- He did not look like a king.
- His home did not look like a castle.
- He had no scepter in his hand, commanded no armies, gave no speeches, passed no laws. He could not walk or talk. No royal decree came from his lips.
- There was nothing to make you think he was a king. To the outward eye, he was nothing but a peasant child born in dire poverty.
- But to the Magi, he was a king.
- He possessed more royalty in a cradle than Herod possessed in his fine palace. He was greater in his infancy than Louis XIV in his ascendancy. He was more powerful as a child than Napoleon as an emperor.
But it did not seem that way. The eyes of flesh revealed nothing but a normal baby, gurgling and cooing, moving his tiny hands side to side, reaching eagerly for his mother’s breast. Somehow the Magi saw beyond the present and into the future and in deep faith, they worshipped him. They saw that this child would one day rule the world and they were not ashamed to fall on their faces before him.
Let me paraphrase the words of one Bible commentator: Although we read that the Magi met Herod, we do not read that they worshipped him. But when they found this tiny baby, rocking in his mother’s arms, these great men fell on their faces before him. To this baby they gave the honor due a king. What Herod craved, the baby received.
The Star of Bethlehem
Finally, there is the star. Something about that heavenly light seems so appropriate. I noted earlier that all the cartoons had the star somewhere in the picture. What was the star? It helps to remember that the Wise Men were students of the sky. That means they would not be frightened or put off by anything unusual that suddenly appeared to them. In those days it was not uncommon to associate the birth of a great ruler with unusual heavenly phenomena. The star—whatever it was—would make perfect sense to them and would in fact perfectly fit what they already believed. You might say that if God wanted to get a message to these pagan priests, he picked the perfect way.
But what was the star? Frankly, we don’t know. The particular Greek word is a very general one that could refer to any bright object in the sky. It could refer to a star or a planet or a meteor or even to a comet. It could refer to some unusual conjunction of the planets that produced an extremely bright object in the skies. Or it may be that the “star” was a special heavenly light prepared by God to guide the Magi. Evidently this “star” appeared in the east to alert the Magi to begin their journey. It disappeared and then reappeared after they left Herod to journey to Bethlehem. Somehow they knew it was “his” star and they were overjoyed when they saw it (Matthew 2:10). It led them to the very home where Mary and Joseph were taking care of the baby. That doesn’t sound like a comet or a meteor to me. It sounds more like a special light from God sent to direct the Magi to Jesus.
Late last night I received the weekly e-mail update from our missionaries in Nigeria, Greg and Carolyn Kirschner. This week’s message is called “Star Search.” They talk about how they have become stargazers because the electricity often goes off in the evening, leaving them plenty of time (and lots of darkness) to contemplate the stars as they fill the African sky. They write these words:
At this season of the year, we are aware of legendary stargazers who were also amazed. Their focus was a single star—a star hidden among many others, but so different. A star that would lead them to the Light of the World. As we have moved through this Advent season, our family devotion time considered some of the scientific explanations behind the star the Magi sighted and pursued. Whatever the explanation, the Magi themselves faced a decision: Were they going to pursue the star? At what cost and for how long? Were they going to move out of their comfort zone in order to search for something small yet priceless?
We are struck this holiday season by the awareness that all of us face the same decision. Will we pursue Jesus? Will we recognize the amazing signs God places around us that point to the reality of the God-Man, Jesus Christ? Will we journey to get to know Him?
With those words I bring this message to a close. Let us lay aside our cares and follow the Magi on their journey to Bethlehem. A baby lies there who is the Light of the World. The King in the cradle. Immanuel. God with us. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus, Savior, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
What a strange world we live in. How different things seem now, how uncertain we all feel. But some things do not change and will never change. Wise men still seek him. And those who seek him find him. That will never change. On that happy thought, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas. Amen.