We invited Scott Moonen to reflect on the birth of Christ for this year's Christmas Eve service. Here are his comments in case you weren't able to attend.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1–12 ESV)
This is the word of the Lord.
Brothers and sisters, this story is true.
I wish we had time to reflect on everything interesting here. I don’t know what it means for a star to stoop to earth, although I think C. S. Lewis came close to the truth. However, tonight let’s focus our attention on the greater miracle of God’s stooping to earth.
To help us, let’s consider what brought these men here. Our translation calls them wise men; you may also know them as magi, or as three kings “of Orient” (even though the number three is a complete guess). The scope of their wisdom could well extend to dreams, magic, astrology, and sorcery. They come from the east, from Persian lands. All of this may remind you of the Old Testament prophet Daniel and his run–ins five hundred years earlier with Babylonian magicians, enchanters, and astrologers over the matter of dreams and worship—these were the Babylonian magi. Daniel went on to serve the kings of Media and Persia who conquered Babylon. Wise men are record–keepers; they do not forget. It seems likely that Matthew’s wise men had a connection with Daniel the wise man. Were they taught by him to look for and hope in a king of the Jews? Let’s see what they might have learned from Daniel.
The wise men were seeking the king of the Jews. Jew literally means someone from Judah. Since the tribes of Israel returned from their exile in Babylon, they all carried the name of this one tribe from which the great king David came. Daniel knew that God promised Judah would be first among his brothers and would have an unending kingship. From Genesis 49:
“Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons shall bow down before you.
Judah is a lion’s cub;
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down; he crouched as a lion
and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” (Genesis 49:8–10 ESV)
Daniel might also have taught the wise men of Babylon the prophecy of Balaam, who declared in Numbers 24 that a victorious star would come out of Judah’s father Jacob:
“I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near:
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab
and break down all the sons of Sheth.” (Numbers 24:17 ESV)
God’s sending a star is a fitting announcement of the coming of the king of the Jews.
Interestingly, even though the prophet Micah came before Daniel, the wise men do not seem to have had his prophecy or did not connect it with their mission. Matthew makes Micah’s prophecy the centerpiece of this little story; it is a second witness that confirms the words of the wise men. A ruler and shepherd will be born for Israel in Bethlehem of Judah. This is just what the wise men are seeking: the king of the Jews.
The prophet Isaiah lived about the same time as Micah, and Daniel was much more likely aware of his writings. Isaiah says that the nations will stream to Israel and her king. He has such a rich set of passages to choose from, but here is one where he shows the nations bringing gold and frankincense, so that Matthew’s wise men are perhaps very deliberately walking right into this prophecy!
Lift up your eyes all around, and see;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from afar,
and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and exult,
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.
All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you;
the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you;
they shall come up with acceptance on my altar,
and I will beautify my beautiful house. (Isaiah 60:4–7 ESV)
This sounds wonderful for the people of Israel, but why should Persians gladly go out of their way to honor and serve the king of the Jews? These are not even the first Persians to show such interest; emperors Cyrus and Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes showed great interest in Israel and Jerusalem and in God’s temple. What would they have learned from the wise man Daniel, the man who also taught Nebuchadnezzar the ways of God? Could it be that these promises are for us too?
Yes! Daniel knew that God’s promises are for the world and not just for Israel. God’s first promise of salvation from sin and evil was to Adam and Eve, long before the founding of Israel. At the very beginning of Genesis, God cursed the evil serpent, declaring that someone was coming who would wound him. Later, God promised to Abraham that through him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” What’s good for Israel is good for the world. We see an early example of this in Genesis when God gave Joseph the Hebrew insight and wisdom to feed “all the earth” during a famine.
Daniel first served the great emperor Nebuchadnezzar, and so Daniel became another blessing to the families of the earth at that time. Nebuchadnezzar had a vision of a great king and kingdom to come that would shatter the kingdoms that came before, that would cover the earth and “never be destroyed.” Later Daniel himself had a vision that this great change would begin in about 500 years. So, the wise men were prepared to wait for just this moment. It seems that little Israel is going to become pretty important.
But something interesting happened to Daniel. An angel told him that part of his vision was to be shut up and sealed: a mystery. Daniel’s mystery is the same mystery that we see ripped wide open much later in the New Testament. The mystery is this: Jesus is not just taking the old ways and the old Israel and setting up Israel in charge of everyone else. Instead, Jesus is making a new kingdom out of and over all nations: his church. The apostle Paul says that Jesus is making a “new man” of the church by uniting Jew and Gentile. He calls the church the “Israel of God,” and the author of Hebrews calls the church the “heavenly Jerusalem.” Paul says that God counts someone a son of Abraham not by genealogy but by faith. The king of the Jews turns out to be the king of kings. What’s good for the church is now good for the world.
Matthew’s wise men may not have understood this mystery of Jesus making a new kind of kingdom, but they did understand from Daniel that Jesus would be king of the world, that the world owes its allegiance to him, and that the world can only find happiness in him. The great irony here is that Herod and all Jerusalem, especially God’s priests, should have known this; in fact, Matthew shows us that they did know it without acknowledging it. In a strange mix of fear and pride, they rejected the king and his blessings and his warnings, clutching their current way of life.
But this baby Jesus, this king Jesus, must have our complete allegiance. Everything is his, so anything that we treasure more than him or apart from him is not ours to have and keep. Herod lost what he tried to keep.
Jesus himself says that everyone who is not against him is for him, and everyone who is not for him is against him. It is not possible to be neutral or indifferent; we are always walking in allegiance or defiance of him. Psalm 2 underscores this test that is set before all of us:
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:10–12 ESV)
There is a high cost but also a rich blessing set before us. We give our very lives to Jesus, day after day after day; he gives us the real blessings of Psalm 2 and Isaiah 60 and so many other passages. The first and greatest blessing is that he forgives all our rebellion. This is why the Christmas angels announce to the shepherds the good news that Jesus is a Savior. And this salvation is the foundation of all his other blessings. All the best Advent and Christmas carols are true! We begin to taste them now through Jesus and his church, and we will eventually receive them in totality. God does not promise bread to his children and give us stones.
It is an open secret that this king is right now sitting on his throne and has infiltrated his enemies’ dominions from the highest to the lowest places. His people enjoy constant communication with him in prayer and by the presence of his Holy Spirit; and we have a special audience with him every week. He has us on a special mission which includes suffering and sacrifice, and this is why we do not yet see all the promises coming true. It is because, through us, he wants to flash his light into every possible darkness, to win more people to himself, and to share his blessings more widely.
It is good to belong to Jesus!
If you do not yet belong to him, I promise you will not regret giving your allegiance to him.
If you do belong to him, then let the great faith of the wise men remind and encourage you that it is good to give your allegiance to Jesus. Your allegiance will be tested, but you will not regret serving him wholeheartedly and unashamedly. Daniel and the wise men show us that we can still serve earthly kingdoms, but Herod is a lesson to us not to make our homes there. Your home is in the house of God.
It is good to belong to Jesus!
Father, you gave your only–begotten Son to take our nature upon him. You caused us to be born again and made us your children by adoption and grace. Renew and refresh us by your Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord. To you and Jesus and the Holy Spirit be all honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.