I grew up in the States, and one of the odd differences between the US and Canada is that people here decorate their homes more for Halloween than they do for Christmas. You are liable to see more skeletons in the yard than you are Christmas lights; more giant inflatable spiders than Santa Clauses on roofs. And, while the Nativity scene is a common installation in the yards and churches in my hometown, I don’t recall seeing many, if any, here in Canada. I’m not sure that this trend signifies anything, but I do find it interesting.
Now, the nativity scene in a yard, like skeletons or spiders, doesn’t necessarily indicate significance—sadly it represents something more sentimental, ornamental, and kind of kitschy. It’s a thing people do, not necessarily a thing people understand. After all, the nativity scene is a collector’s dream—you can get all the pieces, animals, shepherds, wise men—and then you can wait to put the baby Jesus in place on Christmas Eve. The whole idea of the Christmas play, where children act out the story of Jesus on stage, is part of this trend as well. In some churches the play becomes a huge affair—live animals are rented and going to church on Christmas is the same as going to the zoo. And in that key moment, when everyone is assembled on stage—camels and sheep, cows and children, angels and wise men, Mary, Joseph, and the Johnson family’s new baby playing Jesus, how can there be anything but chaos? And the truth is that no matter how nicely you dress up the figures, no matter how expensive they were or cheap, no matter if you bought them at Wal-Mart or Tiffany’s, no matter if you have live animals or two unfortunate children inside a donkey costume, there will always be something incredibly awkward about the nativity scene that no amount of effort can eliminate.
After all, how could the meeting of the highest heavens with a stable not be kind of kitschy? Like dressing a dog in a ballroom gown, it will always look a little ridiculous—and this picture is ridiculous. A stable for a birth? Have any of you ever been in a barn and smelled it? Have you ever driven through Langley when they’ve fertilized the fields? And who are Joseph and Mary but a couple too poor and too unknown to afford room at the inn? Then, poor shepherds show up out of nowhere, likely owning little more than the clothes on their backs, adding the smell of their sheep to the mix, and saying that some bright sky-beings had told them to come see a baby. Lastly, a group of wealthy wise men from a far-off land show up bearing expensive gifts. The scene is crowded, and noisy, and smelly, and unexpected, and wealthy people rub shoulders with the salt of the earth, and the whole thing, in fact, is just a little crazy. If it weren’t one of the most reverent moments in history, I suspect our second reaction would be to giggle a little bit.
This cramming together of the unexpected is a huge part of what Christmas is about. And far from being frustrated by the kitsch of the nativity scene, I love it. Because each of these elements—the poor shepherds, the middle-class Mary and Joseph, the upper-class wise men, the animals, and even the backwater stable are brought together, unified, changed and transformed, by the presence of the baby born that night. On the night Christ was born, a new family—a new kind of family—was born.
This was a great reversal. Typically a young couple get married, buy a house, then have a child, then another. They become a family first, then add children to the family. But here, with Christ’s birth, the child comes first and the family comes second. He is born, we say, of the Virgin Mary—which is to say that Joseph had nothing to do with Jesus’ birth—it was neither his choice nor actions, but rather by the special action and choice of God. And this backwards birth begins a backwards history. Instead of becoming a family by virtue of blood, or parents, or class status, or region, now we are made a family by proximity. Instead of relating to one another by genetics, now we relate to one another by our connection to Jesus. The birth of the child-king changes everything.
Around this child, wealth and status are immaterial. Around this child the identity of your parents doesn’t matter. Around this child racism is slaughtered. Around this child all that you’ve done in your past can be forgotten. Around this child strangers can meet and find that they are brothers and sisters. Around this child wars cease, true freedom comes, and life is given to all people. Around this child the true brotherhood of mankind is born. For this child-king is the head of God’s Church, and if the Nativity scene means anything at all, then its meaning is that this is the first picture of what God intends for His people on earth: a messy, chaotic, conglomeration of people whose connection to Jesus changes everything about them.
How did we get here? Follow the wise guys.
How do we get to this place? How to we arrive at the Nativity in our lives? Tonight I want us to follow the wise men to the side of Jesus, so please follow along as we read the story from Matthew’s Gospel now. Let us stand together for the reading of God’s word.
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 eastand 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 Christwas 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 eastwent 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
What I want to do now is use this story as a kind of map, teaching us how to get to Bethlehem by following the wise men. And I think the best way to figure out their plan is to ask ourselves a series of questions about their journey. I’ve come up with six such questions.
First, who comes to see Jesus? The answer, Matthew 2:1, is Wise Men. It’s possible that you’ve never read this story before, but even if you have it is a story that is strongly informed by some historical accretions that have nothing to do with what Matthew records. One of these add-ons is belief that these wise men were three kings. It doesn’t say this. It only says that they were ‘wise men’—or, in Greek, Magi. Furthermore, nowhere does it say that there were only three of them. The number of wise guys is unspecified—all we do know is that they brought three gifts. So, that Christmas song, “We three kings of orient are” pretty much comes out of nowhere. The other thing is that these wise guys aren’t named—somewhere along the road they picked up the names Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar. I have no idea where these names come from, only that they seem to be regularly used in video games.
Wise men come to see Jesus. They were probably ancient astrologers, who studied the heavens. They would have predicted eclipses and noted the positions of the stars. They were men who knew how to interpret omens and signs. And they were, in some sense, attuned to what God was doing.
The second question is this: Why do the wise men come? They come because they were looking for a king. They don’t just show up, they aren’t following blindly, they know that they are searching for the king of the Jews, and they have come to honor him.
Third: How do they find the king? Matthew 2:2 tells us that they saw his star in the East. They were studying the heavens for signs, and the heavens declared the birth of Jesus to them. These men were attentive to what God was doing, and they actively sought to respond to God’s heavenly message. They followed the star from the east until they found the stable. Interestingly, other people don’t seem to be able to see this star—only these wise men. It is a special sign for them.
Fourth, how many kings are in this story? Well, we’ve already observed that the wise men weren’t kings—and what that means is that here in that stable there was only one king, the infant Jesus.
Fifth, what do the wise men do when they find the baby? The answer, Matthew 2:11, is that they fell down and worshipped him. This is an interesting response—Jesus hasn’t done anything yet. He hasn’t performed any miracles or risen from the dead. But the very first ones to acknowledge his kingship are strangers from a far off, unknown land. They worship him on faith. Interestingly, their worship takes the particular form of the expensive gifts they bring. To worship is, in some sense, to give.
Sixth, and finally, we must ask ourselves: who is the real gift here? And the answer is that the real gift of Matthew 2 is the birth of the Child King, who changes everything with his birth—the child whose birth changes the face of the world, the face of history, the meaning of family, of humanity, of wisdom and of giving and worship.
It is not an overstatement to say that everything has to do with this king. Everything centers on who he is and what he is going to do. Herod, the other king from our story, threatened by the birth of this king, is about to murder all the infants in Bethlehem. He claims that he wants to ‘worship’ Jesus as well, but his ‘worship’ is the unholy sacrifice of children. And Herod knows that with the coming of the true king all other kings are invalidated. His power is threatened by Jesus. All power is threatened by Jesus. Because in this birth we don’t have just another king, but The King, the King of Kings, we have God in the Flesh, living among us to show us both the mercy and justice of God once and for all. This child, this fact of Christmas, is the central fact about which every soul on earth must make a single, decisive choice. Will I have him as my king?
The choice is really between Jesus and Herod. Whose kingship will we submit ourselves to? The kingship that creates true freedom, and brotherhood, and economic justice, and right-relatedness with God and our fellow humans? Or the kingship that is built on earthly power, and murder, and class, and injustice, and ethnic identity, and bloodlines?
The Church, this hodgepodge gathering of people from all classes and walks, is the people who claim Christ as their king—not that we do it perfectly—because only he is perfect—but we cling to him, center around him, gather in all our oddness around him, find our commonality around him, are made new around him, and through our connection to him find that we are given strength to live the new life as God’s new people, His new family, here on earth.
What do we do?
How do we get to the side of Jesus? The wise men have shown us the way. We must be wise like them. We must open our eyes to what God is doing in the world. We must search all of creation for God’s words, as they searched the heavens for His signs. We must follow those signs to where God leads us. When we arrive, we must acknowledge that there is only one king, only one lord, and we must, like them, fall down and worship that king. Because the only way to overcome the tyranny of self, the tyranny of power, the tyranny of human hatred and war and violence and injustice, the only way is through bending our knees in submission to Christ the King. And having bent our knees in submission, we will receive the true gift of Christmas: Christ himself, given to us, for us, to transform us into God’s awesome people. And when we receive the gift of Christ, we receive one another as well.
I hope that you, like me, want to find your place at the nativity of Jesus. So the next time you see a nativity scene in the middle of nowhere, remember that it’s right where it belongs. Where you, merely passing by like a shepherd in the night, can for a moment find your place as a witness to the birth of Christ. Every Nativity scene is an invitation. And the good news is that you don’t have to be dressed up, although nice clothes don’t eliminate you. You don’t have to have the right parents. You don’t have to have a certain amount of money in the bank. You don’t have to have expensive gifts. All you have to have is a willingness to worship Christ as your Lord and King, and you will become part of this new family.