(Preached at FBC Pauls Valley, OK 12-21-14)
They asked some kindergarteners in Great Britain about the Christmas story of the visit of the Magi, and they had some interesting insights on it: one young boy said that the three wise men brought Jesus some gold stuff “but Legos would have been better”!
Of course it’s not only children who have missed some things in the story of the visit of the Magi in Matthew 2. There have been a few ideas “passed along” as truth which in fact the Bible does not specifically assert, such as:
— There were 3 wise men. The Bible does not indicate that. It says there were 3 gifts, but it does not say how many magi there were.
— They visited the “baby” Jesus in the manger – many “manger scenes” portray this, but :16 says Herod killed all the children 2 and younger, according to the time magi gave him, so Jesus was not a newborn baby when He was visited by the magi
— Then :11 says the magi came into the “house” (oikos) to worship Jesus – so it was not the manger the magi visited, but a house, some time after Jesus’ birth in the manger.
But despite all this, perhaps the most important thing a study of this passage reveals to us is not the details surrounding Jesus’ birth, but the difference between those who really worship Jesus and those who do not. Christmas is typically the second biggest season of worship attendance in churches, just behind Easter. But it is important to understand that just because you go to church, it does not mean that you are really worshipping Jesus. This morning we find in this passage at least 3 distinct responses to the birth of Jesus, and people today are still responding in the same ways. As we look at these responses today, see if you can find yourself reflected in one of the characters here: what is YOUR response to Christmas?
I. The Intellectual Response of the Religious Leaders
:4 says that when Herod heard from the magi that the Christ had been born, he gathered together the Jewish religious leaders and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. They knew the answer: verse 5 says “They said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet, ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.” This verse they quoted from “the prophet” was Micah 5:2, right out of the Old Testament. I have no doubt that these guys “whipped” this prophecy off the top of their heads. They didn’t have to research it, or look it up; they knew it. Historians tell us that many of the Pharisees had the entire Old Testament Law memorized. These men KNEW the right answers. The Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. But just because they knew the “right answer” doesn’t mean that they responded rightly to the birth of Jesus.
Think about this: do you see ANY verse that says anything about the Jewish leaders going to Bethlehem? There is nothing about it. These men knew the right answers from the Bible – when the word got around that the Messiah was born, and they were asked where, they were able to give the “right answer” — but notice that they didn’t DO anything about it themselves. There is no record that they rejoiced, or that they went to visit Him and worship Him. And in fact, many of these same men were probably the same ones who, a little over 30 years later, would become jealous of Jesus, and reject Him, and put Him to death. They “knew” some of the right answers about Him; but that wasn’t enough. It is just like Jesus said in Matthew 23, “you tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but you yourselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.” They knew the right things to do to worship: they knew where the Christ was to be born – but they didn’t DO it. Their so-called “religion” was just an intellectual “game” – not worship from their heart.
Many of us here today need to listen to this word, because this is exactly where we fall short. Many of us who are life-long Baptists, and life-long church members need to be careful, lest we respond to Jesus with merely the same kind of “intellectual response” as these Jewish religious leaders. Just like them, we have heard “all the right answers” for almost all of our lives – and it is easy to think that because you know the right answers that you are right with God. You are not! “Knowing” the truth doesn’t save you. The Bible tells us in the Book of James Chapter 2 that the demons “know” the right things about God: “You believe that God is one; you do well – the demons also believe and shudder.” Satan and the demons themselves know the right answers – in fact, they undoubtedly know more and better theology than any of us do! — but they are not saved despite what they “know”, because their hearts are not right with God.
I remember a little girl in a church I served at some years ago, who was in Bible Drill. She was very good at it, but the sad thing was, it was discovered that she cheated at it! Here she was, on the one hand, “memorizing all these Bible verses”, but on the other, cheating to win at Bible drill! This is a reminder that real worship is not just a matter of intellectual attainment. That girl could memorize all the right verses about what to do and not to do, but Christianity is more than just learning about things; it is about APPLYING them in our lives.
We need that reminder today. There are many who feel like they are right with God because they “believe” all the right things: they “adhere to the Baptist Faith & Message (2000 ed.)”! or they nod their head in agreement with the Apostles’ Creed, or can quote the “5 Solas” or know all the details of the Christmas story. Now, we DO want to be as doctrinally correct as we can be – God’s word is important, and this is not excuse for being sloppy with our theology — but we must also realize that real worship is not just a matter of having the right “facts” in your mind. The Jewish leaders of Herod’s day had that – but there is no evidence that they truly worshipped Jesus.
Some of us need to be confronted with this today. Just because you can quote “John 3:16” doesn’t mean that you are saved. Just because you know this Christmas story, and some of the details of it, doesn’t mean that you are going to heaven. You can “know” all the right things and still be lost. It’s been said that a lot of people are going to miss heaven by 6 inches — the distance from your head to your heart! The most important question for you today is not “do you know the right things about the birth of Jesus”, but have you repented of your sins and trusted Jesus; are you worshipping and serving Him? Make sure that your response to Jesus is not like those Jewish religious leaders: an “intellectual response” to Christmas.
II. The Hypocritical Response of Herod
How did Herod respond to the news of the birth of Jesus? Verse 8 says that he sent the magi to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” It sounded, for all outward purposes, as though Herod was responding well to the birth of Jesus. He told them that he too wanted to “come and worship Him.” But we know that in reality, he had something much more sinister in mind. The rest of the chapter tells the story: after the magi found Jesus and worshipped Him, the angel warned them not to return to Herod, and they left by another way. And :16 relates that Herod sent and killed all the male children who were in and around Bethlehem. Herod acted outwardly as though he would be a worshipper. But he actually wanted to find the Child for his own selfish and evil purposes: to kill Him, and solidify his hold on the throne. His so-called “worship” was hypocritical.
We need to guard ourselves against hypocritical worship as well. There may not be anyone here as overtly wicked as Herod, who literally wanted to KILL whoever was in his way — but it is still very possible for us to be like him in essence: to put up a facade of worship, when the truth is that we are more concerned with our own personal “agendas” than really glorifying God with our religious efforts.
For, example, many years ago, Cheryl & I went to one of her class reunions, and we visited with a number of people there. One of them was a politician. I asked him where he went to church and he told me, and then he said something to the effect of: “You have to go to church to get elected to anything in this town.” Well that told me a whole lot right there! It didn’t sound like he as concerned about going to church to worship, but to get votes! We can do that with politics, or our businesses, or even our just our own social position or self-esteem. There are any number of ways this can manifest itself, but the bottom line is that if we are going to church for any reason other than really worshipping God, we have put ourselves in the category of Herod and his hypocritical worship.
Now, let me make it clear: there is nothing wrong with a Christian running for office. We SHOULD support godly people for elected positions. There is nothing wrong with being a Christian businessman; and many of us who are Christians rejoice to be able to support fellow church members and their businesses. But what we, as individuals, have to guard ourselves against, is our own hearts. Let’s make sure that we are not going to get votes, or to make sales, or anything other than worship from our hearts. It is possible that our own personal agenda, whether it be politics, or business, or whatever, overtakes what should be our primary purpose for coming to church, which is to worship God. When that happens, then we have become in our hearts just like the wicked Herod: outwardly claiming to worship God, but inwardly going for votes or sales or whatever our personal agenda is.
Each one of us who comes to church needs to ask ourselves from time to time: “Why am I here?” In my heart of hearts, what have I come to church for? Am I really here to worship Jesus — or am I here to get something for myself? Make sure that you are not using the church merely as a cover for your own personal agenda, and that you do not have the “hypocritical response” of Herod.
III. The Worshipful Response of the Magi
There is much misunderstanding, and much we do not know about the magi. But those unknown details about who they were is not nearly as important as what we DO know about them: they had a heartfelt, worshipful response to Jesus. They really came to worship Him. Someone might ask: how do we know that? We see several evidences of their genuine worship in this passage:
A. Heart-felt joy.
:10 “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”
In Greek, it is literally “exceeding, MEGA joy”! This was no “religious ritual”; this was no “I am going to church because I have to”; this was no formal religion. This was worship from the HEART!
ALL real worship must come from the heart. We are going to look at a few actions of worship the magi engaged in a just a moment – but there is NO “action” of worship that will please God in and of itself if it does not come from the heart. Christianity is NOT a religion of ritual; it is NOT a matter of just “doing the right things.” Jesus said in John 4, “Those who worship the Father must worship in spirit and in truth.” Real worship must come from the heart. You see that in Psalm 100. It says; “Shout JOYFULLY to the Lord all the earth; serve the Lord with GLADNESS.” Worship is not a matter of formalism; it commands us to shout “joyfully” and serve with “gladness” – these are heart attitudes, and they are indispensable to genuine worship.
Since we got our grandbaby Abigail for Thanksgiving, our daughter-in-law Ashley’s parents get to have her for Christmas. I saw some pictures that the kids posted of Mark & Paula with the baby there at Covington for Christmas, and it is SO obvious that they are overjoyed to have her there — you can see the joy in their faces. Holding her is not something they “have” do; it is a heartfelt joy! Think for a moment about something you really enjoy in life: maybe your grandkids, or football, or hunting — something you really delight in. No one has to “make” you do those things, do they? You “delight” in them; you “rejoice” to do them. No one has to “make” you think about it; you do because you love it. You don’t have to put it on your calendar, or schedule it; you almost have to schedule NOT to! That is way it is with something you really “rejoice” or “delight” in.
If you’ve never realized it before, that is the way that genuine religion is! When you truly love God, worshipping Him is NOT something you “have” to do; it is something you WANT to do.
Whatever other things accompany it, real worship must begin inside – in the heart. We should each ask ourselves about our own worship – at home and at church – am I just “going through the motions”, or am I really worshipping the Lord from my heart?
:11 “After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother, and they fell to the ground and worshipped Him.” This happened often in scripture: when people would worship the Lord, they would fall to the ground before Him. In fact, this element of falling to the ground is an integral part of the Bible word for worship; it means to fall down towards someone, to bow and “kiss towards” the one you are worshipping, like one giving obeisance to a king. So the very Bible word for “worship” involves humbling ones’s self towards the object of worship.
Real worship involves humbling ourselves before God. When Isaiah was confronted with the holiness of God in Isaiah 6, he humbled himself before Him, crying: “Woe is me, for I am undone …”.
Humbling ourselves is a vital part of our worship too. If we are really going to worship the Lord, we must humble ourselves. We cannot let our pride remain enthroned, and worship God at the same time. Real worship humbles our pride before the Lord. The problem with too many of us is that we are trying to play it both ways: we are trying to worship God on the one hand, and all the while trying to keep our pride intact on the other. But we can’t do that – you can’t “ride the fence” and really worship. You can either keep your pride intact, or you can worship God – but you can’t do both. Jesus said “No man can serve two masters” – you have to choose whom you are going to serve in your worship: you want to keep your pride, or you want to worship God? You can’t do both.
So I think a good question for many of us to ask is, “When is the last time I humbled myself in worship?” When is the last time you got down on your knees? When is the last time you went to the altar at the invitation? When is the last time you made a physical demonstration of worship before God when we were singing? I am not saying you have to do any of these things every time – but these are SOME ways that you can humble yourself in worship. The important question is: are you in some way humbling yourself before God when you worship? Genuine worship involves humbling one’s self before their King!
:11b “Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
This is a famous part of the story: they gave gifts to the Christ child. This is what our giving of Christmas presents is supposedly based around. Giving is a part of worship. When you really love a person, you want to give them gifts. Likewise, when you worship someone or some thing, you want to give – it is an act of worship. From the very beginning in the Book of Genesis, we saw Cain and Abel offering their gifts to the Lord. Giving is an integral part of worship and love.
Cheryl & I went shopping for our grandbabies last week at Toys R Us. I have got to tell you, that was the most fun! Cheryl later said, “If you want to get in the Christmas spirit, go shopping in a toy store for kids!” It was great; we got some little bitty soccer balls, and a toy laptop, and some little metal pots and pans — all kinds of fun things. Nobody held a gun to our head to make us do it; we wanted to do it. And it was not a matter of “we have to spend ___ much”; we had to restrain ourselves from spending too much. There’s not much that is as fun as buying grandkid presents at Christmas!
When you really love, and when you delight in someone or something, you want to give. That is why when we are not giving to the Lord the way we should, it is a real spiritual indicator. The Bible says in Genesis that when Jacob had his experience with God, he said that the Lord would be his God, and that of all He gave him, he would give a tenth to Him. For Jacob, the tithe was a very significant part of his worship of God: it was a sign that He really was his Lord. I believe it is the same for us too. When our hearts are right with God, we WANT to tithe. We want to demonstrate that He is our Lord by giving Him that first 10%. And if our hearts are right with God, we are not going to be legalistic about it — we will want to give above & beyond that, too. We WANT to give to the Lottie Moon offering to support our missionaries, because we want everyone everywhere to know the Lord we have come to know.
So if a person is not eager to give, it is one of the biggest giveaway signs that something is not right in their heart towards God. Christianity is not all about money, as many churches and ministers are accused of – but the truth is that money IS a “thermometer” – it can be a great tool to show your “spiritual temperature.” If this is so, then does your attitude about giving your tithe, or giving to missions, or giving to the needy – say about your “spiritual temperature”? Giving is an integral part of genuine worship.
:12 says, “And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.”
The magi showed their heart-felt worship in several ways, but this last sign of worship is perhaps the best and most important: they DID what they were told to do! They performed their acts of worship there in the house for Jesus – and when it came time to leave, they left and obeyed. They had been warned by God in a dream NOT to return to Herod – so they didn’t! They went home another way. They DID just what God told them to do. This is important: they showed their real worship for God by the way that they OBEYED Him when they left the place of worship.
The Bible teaches that we demonstrate our love by our obedience. Jesus said “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15) He said in Luke 6:46, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord’, but do not DO what I say?” You show how much you really worship the Lord by your obedience to Him.
Over Thanksgiving Break, Cheryl had made a batch of cookies, and my sister Erin came over, and I brought her a cookie on a little “select-a-size” paper towel I had torn off the holder. Cheryl said that was nice of me to bring her that, but if I could, next time to use one from the pile of fast food napkins we have in a little box in the kitchen, as they are lot less expensive than those “select-a-size” paper towels. Well, it so happened that the next day, Erin came back over, and Cheryl had made some more cookies, a special recipe that we loved at Harrah High School growing up. She said: “Bring Erin one of those pink cookies and see if she likes it.” So I did, and when I brought it in, Cheryl said, “Hey, you used one of the McDonalds napkins like I asked you!” I said, “Hey, I’m not perfect, but I can be trained!”
Now, why did I use the napkin instead of the paper towel? (You might say: “So you won’t get in trouble!;-) But I hope the answer is, because I love my wife, and want to do what pleases her. The other day, I brought a cookie in for somebody and I forgot, and used the paper towel again, but I didn’t do it on purpose. But if I knew what she wanted me to do, and purposefully did NOT do it, one might rightly question my relationship with her.
That is how it is between us and the Lord as well. If we really love Him; if we really worship Him, then we will demonstrate it by doing what pleases Him. “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” So in a very real way, we don’t show how much we really worship God by what we do in church as much as in the way that we obey Him when we leave! We can come to church, and give our money, and kneel and pray, and sing as loud as we can – but if we leave and don’t LIVE the way God tells us to live, and don’t DO the things He tells us to do, we don’t really worship Him!
What does that mean for you today? We’d all say that we worship God – but what does your obedience say about how you are worshipping Him?
— Are you doing what He tells you to do?
— Is there is a sin that is a blatant area of disobedience in your life right now?
— Are you forgiving the people He told you to forgive, or are you holding grudges?
— Are you serving Him in the ministry He called you to, or do you keep putting Him off?
— Is there anything God has laid on your heart to do, that you are not doing?
When God told the magi to go home by another way, they DID it! And of course it was important that they did – the life of the Christ Child could have been endangered; so they obeyed God. It is always important for each of us to obey God. And it is one of the most important signs of real worship: if we really worship God, then we will leave our worship time, to go out and obey!
As we look at these characters from Matthew 2, and the way that they responded to the birth of Jesus, which one do you resemble the most?
— Have you had merely an “intellectual” response like the Jewish leaders: you “know all the answers” but you are not really worshipping Jesus?
— In your heart of hearts, are you hypocritical in your response, because you act like you worship Jesus, but you really have some other motives?
— Or do you really worship Him? If you’d say that you are, are you showing the signs of it, by truly delighting in Him, by humbling yourself, by giving, and especially by your obedience?