Sermon: Because of Bethlehem: Heaven’s Treasure Became Humanity’s Greatest Gift
Scripture: Matthew 2: 1-12
Date: December 10, 2017
We are continuing to think about who and what we are Because of Bethlehem more than 2000 years after the birth of Jesus. And so the first week we talked about Mary and said that at Bethlehem, Mary fulfilled the longing of the heart of humanity down through history – the longing to look upon the face of God. When Mary looked at the face of her new born baby she saw God’s face and because she did, so can we – because from that moment on, no matter what circumstances we may be experiencing on this earth, Jesus was born as the promise that God will always be with us. And then last week we talked about the Angels and that because of Bethlehem, WE, you and I, can worship God for all eternity. No longer do we need a Priest to approach God on our behalf because God has broken down all the barriers and come to us. God in human form. Always worthy of our praise and adoration. And so we worship Him with our voices and our lives. That’s what we were created to do.
Now this week we’re going to look at the role of the Kings. Now I know that some of you are thinking that it is much too early in Advent to be talking about the Kings. After all they don’t arrive until after Christmas. There are even those who believe that it might have been up to four years after Jesus’ birth before the Kings arrived in Bethlehem. We don’t really know. But it is not the journey that I want to think about this morning anyway. What I want us to think about are the gifts that they brought. So I start with this question: Have you finished making your Christmas list yet? (Refer to Toolbox). Now as adults our Christmas lists are a little different than the ones we made as children. Because as we grow older most of us spend most of our list making time, deciding what we want to give to others, rather than what we would like to receive. And so Matthew tells us that these three travelers from the East, came bearing gifts. After all, it was Jesus’ birthday. But here’s the thing. The only references we have to the actual birth of Jesus in scripture are the two stories in Luke and Matthew, and veiled references in John, but then none of them mention it again. And, of course, we know that at some point Mary and Joseph and Jesus, flee from Herod into Egypt. And after that there is no more mention made of Shepherds and Kings and the Angel multitude or the miraculous nature of the birth. No indication that Jesus ever came back to Bethlehem. In fact, all of those who attended the birth of Jesus came from someplace else, foreshadowing I think that Jesus didn’t come to those who had been waiting for Him. At least not in the way they thought He would. Apparently no one in Bethlehem had any idea that something special was happening that night. That the long awaited Messiah had come. No one noticed the star, or had room for these two travelers from Nazareth even though the woman was about to deliver a child. And we move on quickly from the birth and really any account of His childhood. In fact, for three centuries there was no celebration of Jesus’ birth at all. The Jews and early Christians didn’t really celebrate birthdays. That was a pagan custom that they thought put too much emphasis on the individual and not God. And so Luke, the Gentile Gospel writer is the only one who goes into great detail about Bethlehem and stables and in his telling, it’s only the pagan shepherds that come bearing gifts. The religious leaders wanted nothing to do with Jesus from the time he was born. When King Herod made inquiries of them about whether the Messiah could have been born in Bethlehem following the visit of the Magi, they shared the prophecies with him, but they had no desire to go and see for themselves apparently. For most Jews the birth of Jesus was a non-event, just as it is for so many today. We celebrate Christmas, but most have no desire to go to Bethlehem and see for themselves. And it really wasn’t until the 4th Century A.D. that the church became interested in Jesus’s birth at all. And then they began to look at all of the caves in the Limestone around Bethlehem and settled on the one they thought was the most likely location of Jesus Birth as described by Matthew and ancient historians. And so around 330 AD, the first church of the Nativity was built on top of a cave that was believed to be the birth cave. Though we don’t really know for sure. And even then there wasn’t any agreement on the date of Jesus’s birth. The 25th of December was chosen because it corresponded with the winter solstice and the return of the daylight, and of course light was the prominent imagery that the prophets had used to describe the Messiah. A great light emerging from the darkness. And so in 345 A.D., Jesus’ birth was celebrated in His church for the first time. And it was still some years later that the church began to celebrate Epiphany, the feast that remembers the Kings coming to Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. But let’s get real. What kind of gifts are those to bring a new born baby. Gold maybe. But Frankincense, an ingredient mostly used in perfume, but not the perfume itself. Only a part of it. Even the poor woman who burst into the Pharisees house to anoint the feet of the adult Jesus and then dried them with her hair, used perfume, not just an abstract. And then the Myrrh, also from a plant, what we now call an essential oil that was mostly used to prepare a body for burial and decompensation. What kind of gifts are those to bring to a baby. At best they give us some idea of where the wisemen might have come from. You would have thought that if these guys are so wise, they could have come up with better gifts. What about some clothes, or a blanket. I’ll bet these guys didn’t get invited to many baby showers. And the early church tried to make sense of the gifts by speculating that Joseph was able to sell the items to get money to help them survive their flight to Egypt. A practical take on some pretty impractical gifts. But the Kings would have had no way of knowing that the family would have to flee from King Herod to avoid Jesus being slaughtered with all the other young boys of Bethlehem. The prophecies didn’t say that the Messiah would be born and then have to flee to Egypt. The prophets would not have thought that the Messiah would not need to flee from anyone. No let me suggest that these were last minute gifts, chosen in desperation, put together at the last minute, that the Kings got a ways down the road when it occurred to them they should probably have gifts to bring to a new king, and so the word went out in their entourage to find something they could give to honor Him. And these three things were the best they could come up with. For a baby. Now don’t get me wrong. These are certainly fine gifts, and perhaps appropriate for an adult King, but not much of a gift for a baby. Though their hearts were certainly in the right place, you have to wonder about their heads. About their true understanding of the prophecies. Because the nature of these gifts indicated that they didn’t really know much about Jesus at all. You know, it’s really hard to give good gifts to strangers, isn’t it? The best gifts come out of who we are, and what we know about one another. But then don’t we sometimes offer Jesus gifts he doesn’t need, that He can’t use. Don’t we sometimes offer Him our critical attitudes. Our judgemental spirit. Or our half hearted love that we proclaim with our lips but not with our life. Or we offer just a small part of who we are, when what He wants, what’s on His list, is our whole self. Here’s some birthday gifts Jesus, drawn from our excess of riches, and we offer them to you even though they are of no practical use to you. Often times, when it comes to our faith, when it comes to what we can give Jesus, our intentions are good, but we take the easy way and instead of giving of our whole life, we give God things that He doesn’t really need, and He can’t really use. We somehow think that Jesus is going to be content with our leftovers. With regifting. Because we don’t really know Jesus. He is really mostly a stranger to us. And what we don’t understand is that what He wants is our everything. Our very best of everything. But then when you get right down to it, that first Christmas wasn’t really about giving gifts. Even though that’s certainly a large part of the secular Christmas celebration now. I read this week that over Thanksgiving weekend the “Christmas” season, retailers got off to the best start for many years. So people are buying gifts to give, but it is not the reason that we celebrate. Gift giving is not the reason the Wise Men came to Bethlehem. You see, Christmas is at it’s core about receiving. The question that is on everyone’s lips is not “What are you giving this Christmas?” No the question that tends to put Christmas in proper perspective is “What do you want for Christmas?” It’s the question that is behind our Christmas list. It’s the question that Santa asks children when they sit on his lap. It’s the question we ask one another. Because Christmas is all about receiving. Receiving Christ. Receiving God into our lives. Because of Bethlehem – Heaven’s treasure became our greatest gift.
So as we study these wisemen the question that we need to be contemplating is not what they brought to the party to give to Jesus. The question that is more essential for our lives is: What did they receive when they came to Jesus? Matthew, of course, loves the wise men. He is the only one who even talks about them being a part of the story of Jesus’ birth. In fact, Matthew gives more ink to the wise men, then he did the birth of Jesus. Because Matthew tells the story more from the perspective of what the birth of Jesus meant, rather than how it happened. So then the question is not what the wise men gave Jesus. Instead it is what did Jesus give them? Look what Matthew says. The Wise Men’s quest first brings them to Jerusalem, where they encounter Herod and tell him about their quest. And Herod, of course, assumes that once they have found the new King that they will return the same way they have come and so he tells them to come and see him on their way home and tell him all about the completion of their quest. And so they leave Jerusalem where they probably expected to find the new King – in the seat of power – and continued on to Bethlehem, only about six miles from Jerusalem, but it might have been 6000 miles in terms of importance. But it was in Bethlehem that these travelers found what they sought. And they worshipped and they presented their gifts, and then Matthew says: “they returned to their country by another route” according to the Revised Standard Translation – but the King James Version reads: “by another way.” And that is the more accurate wording. Now you may be thinking what difference does it make. Well, let me suggest that there is a major difference between route and way that helps us understand exactly what these Kings received from Jesus. You see “route” is a geographic term – it refers to directions on a map. But the word “way” suggests a more spiritual meaning. It refers to directions in life. Elsewhere Matthew uses the same word when he talks about in the Seventh chapter of his Gospel how the “way” to heaven is very narrow and hard to travel. And then in the 21st Chapter Jesus uses the same word when He talks about John the Baptist showing us “the way” of righteousness. It’s not the physical way but Spiritual. And remember Jesus himself said that He is “the Way, the truth and the life.” The implication is that the Wise Men did not receive just new coordinates on a map from God, no what they received was new life. A new way of living. The gift of Jesus sent them home, as new men. They came to celebrate a birth, but left celebrating their own rebirth. They came out of their worldly nature, but they went home filled with the Holy Spirit. The gift the wisemen receive is new life in Christ. A new way of being. Because of Christmas – Heaven’s treasure becomes our greatest gift.
And then there are the Shepherds. They were out in the fields tending the sheep. All they had was the clothes they wore. They had no luggage to reach into in order to pull out any gifts for a baby. Now church tradition tried to sanitize the shepherds. They almost always appear at the stable with a lamb or two. The implication is that the shepherds brought a lamb as a gift to Jesus. Certainly a nice thought but so very wrong. Consider that most shepherds weren’t caring for their own sheep. They were hired to care for other people’s flocks. And because Shepherds were considered to be generally of very low character, the stakes of their employment were very high. The consequences were severe if they “lost” one of the owner’s sheep. Sometimes even death – but almost always their jobs as shepherds. No one would hire a shepherd who had lost one of the flock. That’s why Jesus’s telling the story of the Shepherd who has charge of 100 sheep leaving behind the 99 to go and find the one who was lost, seems odd to us but not to a first century Jew. Of course, the shepherd would go in search of one that was lost. He would take that risk. It was not really for the sake of the sheep, but for their own sake. If a shepherd returned the flock to it’s owner with even one missing, he had better bring the dead body of the missing sheep with him, or the assumption would be that the Shepherd had stolen the sheep or sold it and pocketed the money. Shepherds had bad reputations. So get out of your head those pictures of the shepherd boy bringing a lamb to the manger to give to Jesus. When Christina Rossetti wrote in her poem “In The Bleak Midwinter” about the shepherds, “What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb” she is right about the shepherds have nothing to give Jesus when they came to the manger, but she was wrong about giving someone else’s lamb as gift. That could have meant death for the shepherd. The Shepherds had nothing of their own that they could give as a gift. Except according to Rosetti, their heart. Really, what the shepherds did that night, in going to Bethlehem and leaving their flocks, would have been contrary to everything the people would have understood about Shepherds. They would have never left their flocks to go into town for any reason. Sheep were so helpless and vulnerable that leaving them alone at night would have been to risk the safety of the whole flock and ultimately their own lives. But the angels had penetrated their hardened hearts and they had to go. They had to take the risk. Their need for a Savior was greater than their need for life itself. But Jesus was not born to save us from death – the life he offered was wrapped in redemption and grace. That was the gift that the Shepherds received – salvation. Condemned by the world but saved by a baby in a manger. And then as He grew, Jesus talked about the religious leaders who were full of hatred and condemnation and said they were the “bad” shepherds of Israel, and then remembering the Shepherds who came to Bethlehem began to refer to Himself as the Good Shepherd, willing to lay down His life for the sheep. The shepherds came to the birthday party with nothing really to give from their life, accept open minds and hearts, but oh what they received. Through redemption and grace Christ gives all those who come a life of abundance and meaning. Perhaps you come to Bethlehem this Christmas in need of salvation. Your world spiraling out of control. Feeling rejected, condemned, alone? Well there is new life for you in the Manger of Bethlehem. The Wise Men and Shepherds received it. And so can you. Because of Bethlehem, Heaven’s treasure became humanities greatest gift.
Before Bethlehem, God was understood as a God who received our gifts, our sacrifices on the altar. But Because of Bethlehem, all that changed. And our God went from the receiver of gifts, to the giver of gifts, in fact the greatest Gift ever. The gift of Himself. A baby just like us. And so as we make out our Christmas lists this year, let me change the question – what do you need God to give you this Christmas? It’s Because of Bethlehem that we can ask that question.