I was for some years a member of the preaching team at Rainham Parish Church.
As it is some years since I preached about the Epiphany, when we recall the visit of the wise men to Jesus, I thought I would reproduce a talk I gave on Sunday 28th December 2003.
In a way it should precede the talk “The Dark Side of Christmas” that I gave last week at Nelmes URC.
Matthew 2:1 – 11
The Visit of the Magi
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 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.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 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. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 ” ‘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.’ “ 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 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.” 9 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. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.
This morning’s passage from Matthew’s gospel deals with the second group of people mentioned as coming to worship Jesus, the “Wisemen from the East” or the Magi.
The first named worshippers were the shepherds who were on the margins of Jewish society. Today we look at people who, to the Jews, were even worse. They were not only gentiles but astrologers and probably Zoroastrian priests – the Magi from whom we get our word magic or magician.
So, how come complete outsiders came to know about Jesus when the Jewish religious leaders were all ignorant of his birth and his significance? We know from this passage in Matthew that the chief priests and the teachers knew their scriptures and knew where the Messiah was to be born and no doubt awaited his arrival. They had the script but missed the cue.
If we read our Bible we should not be surprised that these wise men were drawn to Jesus. After all one of Jesus’ predecessor’s Solomon had been visited by an important visitor from the east – the Queen of Sheba who had also brought presents of gold and spices. On that occasion Solomon received a mere 120 talents of gold or about 4 ½ ton. At today’s price (3rd January 2015) this gold was worth approximately £112,267,890.
The writer of Psalm 72, said to be Solomon, prophesied that future kings from the east would come with tribute a very special King whom we of course know as Jesus. In due course Jesus comments about this in Matthew 12 v 42 “The Queen of the South will rise at the judgement with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom and now one greater than Solomon is here.”
And even more amazingly if you read the story of Balaam in the book of Numbers 24:17 “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”. Balaam himself prophesied how a star would rise from Judah to signify a King. Balaam if you recall was a wise man from the area where the magi originated and as far as the Israelites were concerned was a pain in the neck, yet God spoke through him.
If the biblical evidence is not enough, there was, in the known world of the time, an expectation of the birth of an important King in Judah as recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus and by Suetonius who was the biographer of the Roman Emperor Vespasian who reigned between 69 and 79 AD.
At this point we will pause to consider what is worship?
Is it turning up in church on a Sunday and singing some nice hymns or worship songs and then going home having done the “God bit” for the week? Or is there more to it?
Is our worship together constrained by the songs we sing? Do we have it on absolute authority that God only likes Graham Kendrick or Moody and Sankey or what ever our favourite happens to be?
Perhaps we hate that electric keyboard and those guitars or like the early puritans we describe the pipe organ as the “devil’s bagpipes”?
Surely worship is more than this?
The word “worship” has its roots in an old English word meaning “worth” so you could say, that to worship is to give adoration or love to someone or something according to its worth.
How much is something worth? Many of the years I spent in banking were in Debt Recovery either getting people or companies back on their financial feet or trying to get the money back from them. We found that we were often faced with the question of “how much is something worth?” The customer may have paid thousands of pounds for new equipment or stock but the real hard answer is “It’s worth what someone will pay for it!”
From people’s words and actions you can see how much or little Jesus really means to them.
I won’t ask you to answer out loud, but how much is Jesus worth to you?
Worship should come from the heart in response to who Jesus is and what he has done for us, whether it be our singing in church or our private devotions or by what we do for Jesus.
I expect you’ve seen the “look at me” worshippers be it singers, musicians or those who do things to be noticed. Over the years we had several at a church I used to attend. One organist was absolutely brilliant, a really gifted musician, but from the “look at me school of music”. He was there for the performance and the public adoration it generated for him, rather than to give glory to God who had given him his talent. We also had twin ladies in the choir who were nick named “early and late” because one started ahead of everyone to be noticed and the other finished behind everyone so as not to miss out. Their mother was “The Congregation”. You know what I mean, as in “The congregation didn’t like that new .”hymn tune” “The congregation don’t like so and so” etc.
Worship costs. We all feel like praising God and singing our hearts out on the good days when everything is wonderful and we have been really blessed but what about the other side of the coin? When everything is going wrong, life’s a real mess and we feel far from God? Can we come to him with our worship at times like that? Have a look at Habakkuk 3 v 17 & 18 “Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in God my Saviour.”
When you really love some one you tend to be extravagant and don’t count the cost in either time or money.
Any one here had a long distance court ship? If you love someone distance is not an insurmountable problem, it can be over come.
Before we married, Gaynor spent three years at Leicester University and I was frequently either zooming up and down the M1 or travelling in and out of St Pancras station to be with her. The major accident I was involved in and the car engine blowing up were just part of the cost that had to be paid as was driving for six hours through a blizzard.
Just look for a moment at the extravagant worship of a lady called Mary in John 12 v 3 – 8 “Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of the disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone” Jesus replied. “It was meant that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
Isn’t it interesting how religious people always have difficulty coping with true worshippers? Those who may come to church and have even heard of Jesus can find it hard to cope with people who love Jesus and worship him. We see it not only in the reaction of Judas in the above passage but in the way the Pharisees and the priests treat Jesus and his followers throughout the gospels and the book of Acts.
For our wise men, worshipping Jesus was a costly adventure. A sacrificial adventure.
Firstly it was costly in time. We don’t know how long it took them to trek across the desert from their home which was traditionally thought to be in what is now Iraq. But we can guess from the story in Matthew that Herod had all boy children under two killed in the Bethlehem area. It would not have been an easy journey on camels with the possibility of robbers and wild animals on the route and then crossing into the Roman Empire.
Do we sacrifice our time to worship Jesus or do we limit him to an hour and no more on a Sunday morning? How about during the week?
Do we make time in our busy schedules for Jesus?
Do we do what we can for him or what we can get away with?
Secondly it was financially costly.
We do not know how much gold they brought but to give you an idea of what may have been involved we can look at the gifts Naaman brought to Elisha to pay for his healing from leprosy. In 2 Kings 5 we read that amongst the gifts was 6000 shekels of gold. This is about 66 kilos and at today’s price is worth about £1,646,595.72 [When I wrote this in 2003 the gold was worth £543,750!]
Frankincense was the most precious commodity in the ancient world and was worth about the same as gold.
Myrrh similarly was of great value as well as having significance as an embalming agent.
So literally they were bringing a fortune with them. Which no doubt was used to provide for Jesus when the family fled to Egypt to get away from Herod.
Thirdly it was possibly costly in prestige or what people thought of the wise men.
They were single minded. Perhaps we can imagine what the folks back home thought of them going on this pilgrimage. Why are you trekking across the desert to that back water of the Roman Empire? Aren’t our gods good enough for you?
It is interesting to note that the wise men appear not to have brought any gifts for King Herod despite his apparent importance and royal status. They intended to worship Jesus and no one else. When they didn’t get the answer to their quest in Jerusalem from the people who should have known, they didn’t give up, or settle for second best by hanging round the temple, even though it was a wonderful building and no doubt the ceremonials and the priests’ robes were amazing.
Do we get side tracked into worshipping other people or things? People can get lead astray into worshipping their jobs, their families, their possessions or hobbies or even their church buildings.
So this Christmas we have much we can learn from the wise men.
1 Be determined in our worship of Jesus and do not be side tracked by anything.
2 Worship is costly both in time and other resources. It is sacrificial.
3 Worship can cost us our reputation and our standing with those who don’t love Jesus.
I finish by reading part of a song by Matt Redman called “When the music fades”
I’m coming back to the heart of worship,
And it’s all about you,
All about You, Jesus.
I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it,
When it’s all about you,
All about You, Jesus.
Lord Jesus, This Christmas we pray that through the power of your Holy Spirit we will like the wise men be drawn to worship only you, regardless of the cost to ourselves. We ask this in your name. Amen.