Christmas Hope: Hope for the Hearers

Good morning everyone.  My name is Phil Human and I’m one of the pastors here on staff and it’s an exciting time of the year to be here at Journey!  It’s in the air – can you feel it?  Christmas is just around the corner!

And I don’t know about you – but as a kid – I anxiously awaiting Christmas morning to see what kinds of presents Santa would bring me – and then when I became a parent – I think one of my favorite things was watching the reaction of my kids when they open that special present…

Of course – sometimes the kids don’t react the way they think they might- and so here’s a short video of kids reacting to opening their Christmas presents – some kids are super excited and some kids are – well – see for yourself – as this first girl opens a waffle maker….

Christmas is about the greatest gift any Father gave his children.  The gift of Jesus Christ, who left heaven, came to earth in order to free us from the bondage of our sin and restore us to a right relationship with Him.  It is God doing everything He can in order to bring us back home to himself.

This morning we are going to read the story of the Magi and Herod – and we will see three different reactions to the news of the birth of the Savior.  And perhaps we might find ourselves somewhere in this passage – in one of these three reactions.

In fact, I’d say that there are only three possible reactions to hearing the news that a Savior has been born.  And we see all three of them occurring – practically in the same room.

We will read from the book of Matthew – which is the first book of the New Testament – which begins with the birth of Jesus.  And we read from Matthew 2:1

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.

King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared.Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”

After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! 11 They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

12 When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.

The Magi are a mysterious group of people.  They kind of appear out of nowhere.  And we are left to surmise where they came from and how they had learned about these signs in the sky that they were to be looking out for.

Many people speculate, and I think it sounds reasonable – that they came from Babylon.  In the year 586bc the southern kingdom of Israel was defeated by the Babylonians.  And many of the Israelites were deported to Babylon.  Among them is Daniel – the famous Daniel in the Lion’s den.

Well, according to Daniel 2 – after Daniel interprets King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream,

48 Then the king appointed Daniel to a high position and gave him many valuable gifts. He made Daniel ruler over the whole province of Babylon, as well as chief over all his wise men. 

So the theory is that Daniel had received word from the Lord about a particular sign in the sky – perhaps it was planets arranged in a particular order – whatever it was – apparently it was passed down from generation of wise men to generations of other wise people and 500 years later they see the sign and someone connects the dots that this must be the sign of the Birth of Israel’s King.

And so they organize themselves to begin this great quest to pay tribute to this storied King.

Now Babylon was located near Babylon, in Iraq.  And I googled the distance between Babylon and Jerusalem and it’s an intimidating 679 miles.  And let me tell you a secret –these guys were NOT driving across the desert – they most definitely had to travel north before coming back around – following the water ways easily more than 900 miles.  How many months did it take them to get there?

Now I say that to say this- I also googled the distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem – the town the religious people knew to be the location of the prophesied birth of the Messiah.  5.6 miles  How long would it take – to stroll 5.6 miles?  You could mosey there in less then two hours.

These Magi travel months and hundred of miles across a desert – they show up at the palace thinking that was the logical place the king would be born.  But the religious experts – they knew better.  Oh – you want to head on south a few miles to Bethlehem and look for him there.

Sweet!  Anyone coming with us?  Nah. Just – you know – we got stuff going on around here…  if you find anything interesting let us know on your way back through town.

There are three universal options when it comes to the real meaning of Christmas.  Three reactions to the greatest gift ever given.  And the teachers and religious leaders display the saddest.  They are completely apathetic.  They shrug their shoulders and are seemingly indifferent.  Whatever.

Whatever guys.  It interests us to see your devotion – it’s impressive – wow – 1000 miles well – we just aren’t buying it.  We don’t believe you.  I mean – nohing personal ‘magi’ but we know a thing or two about God and we think you’re wrong.

Okay – that’s understandable – so – why don’t you investigate our claims?  It’s a short trip – you will be back by dark – a little bit of effort and you can find out for yourself if what we are claiming is true!  That a Savior has been born that will change reality as you know it!

Ah -we’ll pass.  Thanks.

For years I’ve struggled to understand how this comes about and I tried to make excuses for these religious leaders – maybe they were afraid of Herod – or maybe they were in the dark – and just thought they were answering a random theology question but this is not what Matthew reports.  It says that he called them together.  That everyone in Jerusalem knew about the visit of the Magi…

For a long time I struggled with feeling frustrated with their seemingly apathetic response to the Good News.

But I’ve come to realize I mustn’t be too hard on them because their reaction to the Christmas gift is probably the most universal.

Most people – upon hearing about Jesus – are resistant – and appear apathetic.  And if we are fair to them we see that – indifference insulates us from having to wrestle through the implications of their actions.

It’s why when pictures of kids starving in other parts of the world appear on our television – we change the channel.  I want to be entertained, not convicted.  Not investigating insulates us from having to consider that perhaps we ought to be doing something about it.

Does this describe you today?  You know what the claims of Christianity are but – whatever.  For one reason or another – you are reluctant to investigate further?

I’d simply say that the best life possible awaits you on the other side of faith.  It’s a life that has tapped into in inexhaustible supply of love that will flow through you into this kind of world.  It’s a life with an inexhaustible supply of peace -to carry you through the most difficult valley.

You might think – isn’t it a life filled with obligations and requirements?  And I’d say – no that’s religion.  And religion has never been a gift to anyone.

What awaits instead is a relationship with a Father who loves to give good gifts to his children.  And He promises that as difficult as life might get, he will be with us every step of the way.

What awaits is Joy and Peace and Hope.

Maybe like the religious teachers – you have an intellectual knowledge and up here you know all the answers but for you that knowledge has never traveled the short distance from the head to the heart.

Perhaps the saddest part of the story of these religious leaders is that they knew the answers – they knew everything about the Messiah – and yet, they missed their chance to interact with the Living Savior – a short effort away from them.

It’s sad to think that some will settle for an intellectual understanding of Jesus and miss out on the living Christ who -in the words of the Apostle Paul – is not far from any one of us.

Question for those who appear indifferent to the Christmas gift.  What will it take for you to be shaken from your religion-induced coma and encounter the living Christ?

Don’t allow the traditions and sentimentality of Christmas to lull us to sleep and forget – that Christmas actually happened.  God came near to us.  And that changes everything.  Doesn’t it?

Now – let’s move on to the second reaction to God’s gift of a savior.  And for that we are going to look at Herod.

Herod is one of the most ruthless rulers in history.  But he was more than just ruthless – the fact is that he was an architect and he was driven and he accomplished some amazing things in Israel.

He is responsible for building the mountain palace of Masada

He built from the ground up the port city of Ceasarea – that amphitheater is still used today.

Herod was responsible for the rebuilding of the Temple – and in fact if you were to go to Jerusalem today and visit the Wailing wall – it was built by Herod – and is all that remains of his 46 year long project…

This guy was absolutely driven to accomplish whatever he set his mind to – eliminating everyone that he felt might be an obstacle in his path.  Which is why he killed his wife and uncles and sons and scores of others, and which is why upon learning that the Savior was to be born in Bethlehem, ordered a military strike against the town – and killed probably between 20-30 toddlers that he felt might threaten his kingdom.

Why was Herod so threatened?  Because everywhere he went in Israel he could point to magnificent buildings and say – I did that.  That city I built.  These things are mine.  Look at what I’ve done.

And one day the Magi show up and say – we’ve seen His star.  And Herod realizes that if it’s true – that the stars belong to this baby – well, noting he has done can compare.

So what is Herod’s reaction to the birth of the Savior?  He fights! 

We must give Herod credit – he understood what the religious leaders didn’t.  There can be only one King.  The Story of Christmas is the story of two kingdoms colliding.

Christmas is about being dethroned.

If you’ve ever seen the old Disney animated movie Robin Hood – the bad guy in the film is Prince John – the Real King is gone and Prince John is in charge and really really really wants to be looked at as King.  But he’s a sad, sulking, sack, compared to the real King.

Know what that is right there?  That’s the look of a guy who thinks he’s the king but really knows – he ain’t no king.

Herod wants so badly to be king.  But – If Christmas is true – then everything he has worked for is in jeopardy.  Because if Jesus is king – then he ain’t.  So Herod isn’t going down without a fight.

Now there are two ways in which we fight the rule of Jesus in our life.  The first fight is about who is going to get to be the King.  There is room in your life for only one king.

Interestingly – God treats you with enough respect and dignity to allow you to make the call.   If you demand to be the king of your universe – it’s all yours, but make no mistake – that tiny kingdom is at odds with the Kingdom of Heaven.   And it will eventually fail.  It’s untenable and weak.

You don’t even have one star in your universe.

One of the saddest aspects of Herod’s life was that when he was old -and on his deathbed – he looked back at all he accomplished – all of the projects he accomplished that thought would bring him admiration…

And on his deathbed – he realized – no one would miss him when he was gone.

He grew so despondent at the idea that people would rejoice at his death that he gave orders to execute the leading and most influential people in Israel upon his death – he wanted to be assured people would grieve when he was gone.

Sick.  Small.  Sad.  Listen – there is a King born in Bethlehem.  And you can fight it – like Herod.   But the reality is – your kingdom is over – whether you recognize it or not.

The first fight ends for us when we say to Jesus – you are the king of the universe, not me.  I submit.  I surrender.  All I am is yours. And our kingdom becomes part of the ever expanding and ever loving Kingdom of God.

The second fight comes when the King we surrendered to asks us to do something we don’t want to do.  It’s the daily fight to put to death the selfish nature.  And sometimes God will tell us to do something, or say something, or give something, or give up something – and we are faced with the decision.  My way or his?

And this is a struggle more than a fight.  Learning to trust God is a daily adventure.  There will be highs and lows.

Is the King asking you to do something that you are struggling to trust Him with?  You can trust your life to the King who laid down His life for you.

The greatest gift ever given comes to us in the form of a baby in the manger.  What will your response be?

Are you shrugging your shoulders in apathy?

Are you fighting his rule in your life?  Have you surrendered but still fight against his leadership in your life?

There is, of course, a third response to the gift of Christmas. You can bow down and worship Him.

What does it take to get to the point where one is willing to bow down and worship? I’ll tell you – it takes humility.  Salvation – the forgiveness of our sins and a fresh start with God is available to whosoever desires it.  But it requires some humility to receive it.

Let me illustrate it this way.  Imagine for a minute you opened your Christmas presents on Christmas morning and the first gift is a book –

How to make people like you in 90 seconds.  Oh, you think.  That’s a different kind of gift.  Thanks I guess.

Then you open the second gift and it’s another book – Say goodbye to body odor.

And it comes with a bar of soap and a toothbrush.  Wow – this is shaping up to be quite a Christmas – no?

The third gift you open is – you guess it – another book.

How to lose 100 pounds.

Now – a banner Christmas for you!  But here’s the deal – you can’t receive these gifts with any kind of thankfulness until you come to terms with the fact that  – you’ve got some problems.  I’m fat, friendless and smell funky.

You have to deal with reality!  And Christmas is a gift if only received with the humility that is required to understand – the only reason Jesus came to earth was because we were in such desperate need of saving.  We were a mess – and there was nothing we could do to improve ourselves.

God sent Jesus because Jesus’ birth and death and resurrection was the only way we could be healed.  And that requires humility. And that should make us ever so grateful and thankful.

This morning we are going to celebrate the the greatest gift that a loving father has ever given his children.  The gift of salvation – by grace, through faith in Jesus.  Who knew we were in such dire condition that the only thing that could save us was his birth, and life and death and resurrection.

And we come to the communion table today in recognition of this great gift.  And we bow down and worship king who laid down his life for his friends.

The cracker represents the body of Jesus – broken for us.  The juice represents the blood of Jesus = spilled so ours wouldn’t.

We needed it.  And we receive it with thanksgiving and joy.