I love to read books, and I read my favorite ones over and over. It can get to the point where the characters feel like old friends. Does that ever happen with anyone else, or is that just me? Maybe the first few times I read the book, I will notice new things that I didn’t catch the previous times, but eventually I may skim the parts that I know really well, or seem less interesting. When it’s part of a series of books, it is even worse. When the author reintroduces a character from a previous book, I may skip over the section entirely. I want to get to the new stuff. But that can be a mistake because the author may add some important new information that wasn’t included before.
That is the premise of our current sermon series, Fresh Eyes. We can be so familiar with the Christmas story that we can kind of tune it out. “I know this already, so I don’t have to pay close attention.” What we are doing this year is focusing on some details that we may not have even noticed before or at least hadn’t thought about much. So let’s take a fresh look with fresh eyes.
As a kid, you probably had a lot of questions every Christmas. What would you get for Christmas? Would Santa come, or were you good enough to be on the nice list? Would your aunt knit you socks or get you something a kid would actually want?
I remember one year when I was about seven years old, and I got a pair of rainbow striped knee socks. (This was in the 70s, you have to understand.) But the rainbow stripes were not the most unusual thing about them. They had individual toes knitted in, like gloves for your feet. They certainly were fun looking. I couldn’t wait to put them on, but when I did, they felt so strange, especially when I wore them with shoes. One of the questions I asked was why. Why would anyone thing these would be comfortable?
But as we get older, our questions shift. There are a few less questions about what’s under the tree and more questions about how you’ll pay for what’s under the tree or how you will keep your family together for the long run. The questions get even bigger than that. Maybe you’ve started to ask the really big ones, like why am I here? Is this as good as it gets? If there is a God, why do I feel the way I do?
As a young adult, I wasn’t looking so much for wish list but a utilitarian list. Those things I couldn’t afford, like a new pair of shoes because the one pair I had was falling apart. Now, I’m not so interested in receiving anything. It’s the giving. I want to find the thing that he or she will really love, that they want or need. I want them to feel special.
Today’s text takes us right into the heart of the questions we bring into life.
We’ve already seen the Christmas story through the eyes of Mary and the Shepherds. Today, we’re going to look at Christmas through the eyes of some people that Matthew wrote about. Sometimes we call them the Magi, sometimes the Wise Men.
What do you know about these visitors? It’s more a question of what we don’t know. Let me try something: Pop quiz. How many wise men were there? You might think three, but the truth is that we don’t know how many there were. People have fallen into the habit of saying there were three because there were three gifts named in the story (gold, frankincense and myrrh)—one for each king—but we don’t actually know that’s true.
What else do we not know? We don’t know where they’re from. Some say Persia, Yemen, India and Babylon. Others as far away as China. We’re not 100% sure.
Were they kings? Well, maybe, but again, we don’t know. The best evidence suggests they were astrologers or members of a priestly religious class in Persia called the Magi, which means “skilled magicians or astrologers.” In other words they were interested in the supernatural.
What we DO know is they were looking for an answer to the meaning of life in the stars. Maybe you’ve done that. Checked your horoscope (even if you don’t believe that leads anywhere or isn’t right). Or you’ve gone to see someone you hope can tell you what’s going to happen to you in your life. Or maybe you’re a reader, and you’ve read books on spirituality, Christianity, or atheism. At this point, you just want someone to answer the question once and for all of why we’re here on this earth. If you can relate to that struggle, you and the Magi have something in common. You’re looking for an answer.
Let’s look at what the text says, from
Matthew 2:1-2, 9-10 NIV
2:1 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 when it rose and have come to worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. (Matthew 2: 1-2, 9-10)
Did you catch that? They were looking in the sky for a sign… they thought they saw a sign in the stars and they followed it.
You have questions about God. Maybe you wonder why there’s so much suffering in the world if God is so good. Or maybe you wonder about the whole creation and science question, or about why there are so many religions and what good they do.
There’s pretty good evidence that wherever these kings or magi came from, they didn’t know God the way Mary and Joseph knew God. They hadn’t yet heard from the God of the Old Testament (the part of the Bible before Christ) or, obviously, what Jesus would teach and do with His life. They just had questions. Questions about life, about eternity, about God, about themselves…kind of like everyone has had at one point or another. And their questions were intense enough that they would travel hundreds, and maybe thousands, of miles to investigate.
So let me ask you about your questions. Do you ever wonder what it would take to get an emotionally satisfying answer to the question of suffering? Could anyone ever say anything so powerful and definitive it would settle the question once and for all?
Often we live like an answer to that question would resolve all doubt and make the world a better place.
But here’s a question for all of us who question: what if the answer to your deepest questions isn’t an answer. What if it’s a person?
Think about it. If someone could produce an answer that powerful, don’t you think you would already have heard it? And even if you heard an answer, it still doesn’t stop the suffering.
Look again at what happened to the Magi. When they followed the star, they found a child—a person—and they worshiped him.
From a very young age, most of us realize that often when we want answers, what we really want is a person. When you’re five and stub your toe, what you really want is a hug from your mom. When you’re eight, and your best friend snubs you, grandma and her cookies have a way of making it better.
This is true for adults too. When you’ve had a season of loss in your life, chances are you looked for a little more than just an answer, you looked for a person. In fact, in the most confusing times, having the right person walk in the room can instantly make you feel so much better—make you feel that everything will be all right.
When I found out my father was going to die within 72 hours or less, I went outside the hospital to call his sister in Minnesota. She asked me what I needed.
I’ve said it before, but I was really an independent person. It is still something I struggle with though I am much better than I used to be. That day, I stepped out and boldly asked what I never would have considered before. I said, “Send down Uncle Steve.” I was in Texas. He was in Minnesota, 1800 miles away.
Within 24 hours, he was there. It was such relief. My father, his brother, was still going to die, but suddenly I didn’t have to handle everything all by myself.
What if the same is true with God? Maybe you think everything will be resolved when all your questions are answered, or when at least your big question gets answered.
Frederick Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner), the great preacher and author, imagines God intervening in the universe in a supernatural way:
Suppose, for instance, that God were to take the great, dim river of the Milky Way as we see it from down here flowing across the night sky and were to brighten it up a little and then rearrange it so that all of a sudden one night the world would step outside and look up at the heavens and see not the usual display of stars but, written out in letters light years tall, the sentence: I REALLY EXIST, or GOD IS.”
Buechner goes on to say imagine God arranging the display night after night in new ways, ways that engender both deep regret and profound hope, and have preachers (who have always said God exists) marveling at the confirmation of it all, realizing they had been right all along—maybe even more right than they ever realized. Churches would overflow into football stadiums , crime would stop and an uncanny hush would fall over the world.
But, Buechner says, he imagines at some point someone—perhaps a small child with some bubblegum in his cheek—would turn to his father with the crazy courage of childhood and utter the words that would make the angels gasp: “So what if God exists? What difference does that make?”
And in the twinkling of an eye, the message would no longer make a difference. Proof or not, we would turn away. We all want proof, Buechner argues with his beautiful story, but proof in the stars is not the kind of assurance we need after all.
What we need to know is not just that God exists amidst the steely brightness of the stars, but that there is a God right here in the thick of our day-by-day lives who may not write messages in the heavens, but who in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around down here in the knee deep muck and misery of the world
That’s the answer the wisemen, the Magi found that night. Their answer in the stars led them to a crib in a barn and in it a baby who would be the Savior of the world
They were looking for an answer. But instead they found a Person, Jesus, God with us. And maybe that’s what you need right now far more than an answer. You need God with us, God with you.
- God with you in the heartbreak
- God with you in the break up.
- God with you in the mess of family.
- God with you in the sadness.
- God with you as you try to make sense out of the success and the meaninglessness you feel.
- God with you in the strangeness of love.
- God with you in the financial tension.
- God with you in challenge.
That’s what the Magi found – God with us.
They didn’t find an idea, a sign, or an answer. They found something better. They found God with us.
My hope is that you don’t leave this place without knowing that God is with you. And that today He’d love a response from you…a decision that you, too, want to be with him.
God didn’t just come to earth. He came for you. He came for the Magi, for Mary, for Joseph, for the shepherds and He came for you. It was personal.
If you’ve never embraced Jesus as your Lord and Savior, this is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to admit your sin and shortcomings, to believe in Jesus and to commit your life to him. If you are not ready, the invitation remains open. Traditions hold that the Magi were so taken by this Jesus they met and watched grow up, live an exemplary life, die and rise again that they become devoted followers of His.
Today, God extends that invitation to you. You are not alone. God is with us. Maybe the answer you’re looking for isn’t an answer. Maybe it’s a person. And the good news of Christmas is that the Person is here.
Let me pray for you:
Lord, we have so many questions. One may be whether you are there, or whether you are the kind of god who cares or wants to be in relationship with us, a god who can really love us and your creation. We still may not understand, but we are thankful that the answer is not a what but a who, a person, the person of Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate. This birth that allowed you to be with us unlike ever before. Some of us have been struggling with what to believe and what to trust. Lord, I pray that at this special time of the year that you open their eyes to trust and believe how much you love them and are with them through everything in their lives. Remind the rest of us too, so that we can have that fresh excitement experienced by those magi all those years ago. We pray these things in your holy name. Amen!
1Frederick Buechner, “Message In the Stars” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, Harper Collins.