On Christmas we celebrate the day when God became human without ceasing to be God. He came for you. He came because he loves you. Jesus is the God-man. There has never been anybody like him. There never will be.
Who he is, and what he did will be the cause of a celestial party that lasts a million years and into infinity.
That is what Christmas is all about.
All the family and friends, gifts and presents, egg nog, trees, decorations, and joy come from this defining moment.
At Neighborhood, we make a big deal about Christmas.
That’s because it is the one time a year when a window opens in many people’s hearts. There is a spiritual openness around the Christmas season that might not be there for the rest of the year. You might describe yourself that way. You might be listening to me right now for that very reason. All the Christmas lights and trees and candles and music have lit up your spirit, and something deep inside is whispering that this is the year to go deeper. This is the year to see what Christmas really means, what it’s all about, and maybe to enter in in a way you have never done before.
If that’s you, thank you for joining us.
Our theme this year is Christmas Lights… Next weekend, we’ll think together about the Light of the Angels. The weekend after that, the Light of the World.
But today, I invite you to think with me about the Light of the Star.
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 have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:1, 2, NKJV)
What they saw and why they came has been one of the greatest mysteries in the world, and one of the coolest stories ever told.
Let’s see what happened next, and then we can talk about it.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:10, 11, NKJV).
Who were the Magi?
The Magi were an ancient order of royal advisors. They were associated with astrology and the interpretation of dreams. They would have been the star-gazers of antiquity, keeping careful track of the movement of celestial bodies.
In addition to astronomy, the Magi were well-schooled in the prophetic writings of the ancient world. It was such prophecies from among the Jews that motivated their quest for Christ. Based on these Scriptures, they followed a mysterious star to Jerusalem.
- The Magi are powerful people — in the empire of Persia, nobody sits on the throne except by their permission. They are their own kind of royalty.
- They are educated people — history, science, religion, philosophy, law — they Magi guide the kings who rule the nations.
- The Magi are also spiritual people.
They saw a realm beyond the physical one. They were interested in who God was. They wanted to know where the world came from, and where it was going. They thought about the meaning of life, and about what would happen when this life was over. They were interested in matters of ethics, right and wrong, good and evil, and what it all means.
I think that every body has a spiritual core. You do. I do. God made us that way.
We are thinking beings. Until you have little kids. Then you don’t have enough energy to think.
Speaking of kids and Christmas… there’s nothing like the look of joy I saw on my young son’s face… when he unwrapped the Play-station box… that I filled with socks I got him for Christmas. That was special. But I believe there’s a time in every human life when God starts tugging at your heart. You ask questions about your life. Questions about God and about what comes next.
Two thousand years ago, the wise men came to Jesus.
I’m going to invite you to have your own kind of “come to Jesus” moment today. Don’t worry, it isn’t weird. And I won’t single you out or have you come forward or anything. It’s just a silent prayer you can pray when I’m done with my talk. I want to help you do that. No pressure. No hype. Your call.
So the wise men were powerful, educated, spiritual advisors to royalty in ancient Persia.
To modernize this, we could say:
The Magi represent every spiritually-minded person engaging a quest for answers to life’s deepest questions.
And if you are a spiritually-minded person engaging a quest for answers to life’s deepest questions, you should know that we have been praying for you to hear these words today.
And now, they start packing a giant caravan to travel a thousand miles to Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Why? What light did they see?
What did they see?
The Star of Bethlehem has been as source of wonder and debate for two thousand years. A whole lot of theories have been proposed. Some say the Wise Men followed a comet. Others say it was an asteroid or fireball streaking across the sky.
But it is hard to see how this would be unusual enough to trigger the long journey there, or how it would be lasting enough to guide them.
Yet another theory suggests that God simply hung a miraculously bright star in the night sky over Bethlehem. I believe this is totally possible.
If you have any faith at all, to think that the God who created the vastness of space and filled it with stars could add yet another is no problem at all. The Star of Bethlehem then becomes simply one more link in an already long chain of miracles to validate the Savior’s birth.
But again, if God created a new star, King Herod would have probably seen it. And more than the wise men would have visited Jesus.
Astronomers have weighed in with their theories.
Here’s one that pretty much blows my mind: Over here is Judea, where Jesus is born… and over here, to the east, is Persia, where the wise men are from.
Remember, these are Magi, the star-gazers of antiquity, and the whole reason they traveled to Judea is because they have seen the new king’s star.
What did they see? There are astronomers who have run the sky backwards, and this is what at least some of them suggest. That at the time when Jesus was born, there was a once-in-a-lifetime event happening in the sky.
It starts with the planet Jupiter, which is the king of the planets.
Jupiter the planet moves closer and closer to a star called Regulus, or Rex, which is considered the king of the stars.
Astronomers call this a conjunction — two lights in the night sky coming closer together. The king of the planets enters a conjunction with the king of the stars.
As the Magi observed over many days, they would have seen something truly mind-blowing.
The Magi observed that Jupiter seemed to stop and turn around. Today’s astronomers call this retrograde motion, an optical illusion from the motion of earth relative to other planets. The King of the Planets then seemed to draw a circle, like a halo, around the King of the Stars, and come to rest above it.
To the naked eye, the pair would have appeared as a single, very bright star. Had they viewed through a telescope, the conjunction would have looked like a figure eight, with the planet Jupiter resting above the star, Regulus.
But it gets cooler. Is my Inner Nerd showing?
To deepen the wonder, the ancient astrologers had divided the night sky into twelve sections, the signs of the zodiac. By the way, I believe in God and the Bible, not in horoscopes. There’s a difference between astronomy — which is the study of the stars and planets and all that… and astrology — which is a superstitious religion that claims the stars have power over our lives.
Actually, they don’t.
But, the Bible does say that God calls all the stars by name, and that he set them all in motion. We’ll come back to that in a second.
So it was with genuine astonishment that Persian Magi looked to the west, and saw the King of Planets describe a circle around the King of Stars, and come to rest above it, all happening in the zodiacal house of Virgo, the virgin. And all of this, from their vantage point, directly above Judea.
These manifestations would not have been noticed by Herod, or by anybody else for that matter. Only those who paid careful attention to prophecies, and who kept careful watch of the stars would have noticed, and only they would have journeyed to find this one, born King of Jews.
There is a verse in the Old Testament — that is the part of the Bible written centuries before that first Christmas Day… the part of the Bible that promises the coming of a Savior.
The verse says this:
“I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel… (Numbers 24:17, NKJV).
And there’s another verse that says this:
“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14, NKJV).
The Persians had this Bible, and they knew these prophecies, thanks to Daniel, and Esther, and other Jews who served as Persian Royalty.
So now, they see this star-formation, in the house of Virgo and one of them connects the dots to this ancient prophecy… and they say — a king is born in Israel, let’s go check it out! Time for a road trip!
Nobody can really be sure what they saw, but this seems plausible to me, and it seems to have scientific credibility.
Think about this Star of Bethlehem. Think about what this means. For that planet, and that star to sync up with that exact star, in that exact place, at that exact time is the exact opposite of an accident.
From the first nano-second of creation, that star had to be heading that direction to meet that planet at that time, for however many millennia there were before the day Christ was born. It’s all part of a plan. Everything in the universe forms a gigantic orchestra, and God is the Great Conductor.
He has written the score. He knows every part.
All the chaos of the world, and all the dissonance, is being brought into the perfect harmony of heaven.
And you play a role. You play a part.
I don’t know why you’re hearing my words today. You probably don’t know either. Somebody invited you. Or something tugged at your heart. Or it’s something you’ve been thinking about for a long, long time. I don’t know.
But what I do know is this: if God could orchestrate out the movements of the cosmos to lead the wise men to Jesus, he can orchestrate the moments of your life to bring you to Jesus too.
What did the Magi see? The Star of Bethlehem represents God orchestrating heaven and earth since the dawn of existence to point all the world to the Savior.
Which is exactly what he is doing for you in this very moment. Jesus is the Savior, and you can receive him today. Just a few more minutes.
What did the Magi do?
The journey from Persia to Bethlehem would cover over one thousand miles through wildly varying terrain. As members of the royal court, no expense would have been spared. The finest horses and camels, a whole bunch of servants and slaves, tents, carts, cooking utensils, personal attendants, supplies, warm clothing for cold nights—the preparations would have been over the top.
Plus, they had to gather gifts for the king.
At long last, the Magi set out, following the Star of Bethlehem.
The Christmas carol says:
We three kings of Orient [Latin for “from the east”] are,
Bearing gifts, we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor [high lands] and mountain,
Following yonder star.
Oh, star of wonder, star of light.
Star with royal beauty bright.
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
It’s so good.
Bible experts figure a travel time ranging from several months to a year. Adding to that the time required for preparation, it is likely the caravan arrives in the land of King Herod some time after the first birthday of Mary’s son.
After some palace intrigue in Jerusalem, the wise men finally make it to Bethlehem.
Now, think about this. Bethlehem is a tiny town. If you live around here, think of Igo/Ono. Or if you’re watching online, think of a small town with only a few hundred people. Or think of Mayberry.
Then picture this royal caravan come rolling into town. Servants and soldiers and cooks and camels and horses and tents. And then the minor royalty called Magi… and they all come to basically a tiny hut where Mary and Joseph live with their baby.
The whole town has turn out. It’s crazy.
One of the neighbors approaches one of the guards.
Who are you here to see? A baby boy.
Do you need help finding him?
No. See that star formation over that little hut? We know where to find him.
The Bible says:
“And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him” (Matthew 2:11).
He is with his mother. They have no wealth to speak of. Jesus might be wrapped in a blanket, Mary in her typical garb. These Magi enter, and dressed in royal finery, with turbans and gowns and jewelry and crowns, touch their faces to the dirt floor, proclaiming their praises to the child-King.
The contrast could not have been greater. Camels and porters and servants wait outside while inside their masters worship the most unlikely Lord the world has ever seen.
Though the Scriptures never say there were three Wise Men, Matthew says they opened their treasures and presented him with three extravagant gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
- By giving him gold, the Magi recognized his kingship and worth. The Magi were willing to pour out their treasures at the feet of young Jesus, because they saw in him the world’s most glorious king.
- Frankincense is a strong smelling tree sap, hardened into blocks, or pulverized into powders. It was really expensive and was valued as a perfume. Priests used frankincense in worship. They were saying that Jesus is a member of a priestly order, and he has the power to bridge whatever gap there is between you and God.
- Myrrh was an oil used to perfume a body for burial. Myrrh was also provided to victims of crucifixion—a Persian invention—as a narcotic to dull the senses. Jesus would again be offered myrrh at his own death. Christians believe the Magi presented myrrh as a foreshadowing of what lay ahead for this child-king-and-priest.
This is where the idea of giving gifts at Christmas comes from. And I’m glad, because I really like gifts.
You can drop them off at the church office any time.
The whole scene is huge irony.
Two reasons why.
First, they came to celebrate his birth, but gave him gifts symbolic of his death.
But I think God had his hand in this. Because it wasn’t the birth of Jesus that forgave our sins, it was his death. If we only had Christmas, but not Good Friday and Easter, none of us could be saved. None of us could be friends with God. None of us could even stand in God’s presence. So even though they didn’t know it, the gifts the Magi gave really did proclaim the whole reason Jesus was born in the first place! He was born to die for our sins, and bring us back into harmony with God.
But there’s an even deeper irony.
Is the main Christmas message about something we give to God, or about something God gives to us? It is about what God gives to us.
And what does God give to us? He gives that baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. He gave you Jesus.
The wise men were giving gifts to the greatest Gift of all. Their gifts were costly, but Jesus was the costliest gift of all. When he left heaven to come to earth, that was an extravagant gift of love.
But that’s not all. When he gave his life and died on the cross, that was the greatest gift ever given.
What is gold compared to Jesus? What is silver and gold, compared to Jesus? What is good works, baptism, confession, confirmation, communion, effort, obedience, and moral improvement… compared to the sacrificial gift of Jesus Christ, all of these are nothings.
All religions say, GIVE! But only Christ says, RECEIVE! He’s the giver, you’re the receiver, and everything else is a response to that.
The Magi’s worship and gifts represent a response to the ultimate gift — Jesus, and the salvation he brings.
And I am hoping that you will make your response today. It’s almost time.
But you say, Bill… what kind of response are you talking about? What do I need to do?
The most famous verse in the Bible tells you what to do:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
This is Christmas in one verse:
- For God… the Greatest Giver
- So loved… the Greatest Grace
- The World… the Greatest Number
- That He Gave… the Greatest Act
- His Only Begotten Son… the Greatest Gift
- That whosoever… the Greatest Invitation
- Believes in Him… the Greatest Hope
- Should not perish… the Greatest Salvation
- But have everlasting life… the Greatest Difference.
Christmas is all about gifts.
If I held out a gift to you, what would you do?
Well God is holding out a gift to you today. It is the gift of Jesus. He brings other gifts with him.
Forgiveness. Peace of heart. A new power for living. Renewed purpose. Passion. Joy. Strength to rise above your past. He brings eternal life, heaven, and everyday life with God starting now, and lasting forever and ever. The list goes on an on.
God is offering you a gift today. Now is the time to take it.
The way this works is simple. I am going to pray a prayer out loud. If you want to, you can echo that prayer, in your heart, silently to God. I’m not going to single you out. And I’m not going to pressure you.
This is the meaning of the Star of Christmas. The Star of Bethlehem: Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting light.
You can make this Christmas your first Christmas as a child of God.
For our prayer today, I’m going to use the words of a famous Christmas carol, called O Little Town of Bethlehem. The fourth verse is a prayer and it goes like this:
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel
And let’s just add this final ABC prayer:
- ADMIT. God, I admit I need you. You’ve been tugging at my heart. I’ve been searching for answers. I can’t find them without you. I admit I have fallen short of what you require and I need you God.
- BELIEVE. I believe that on Christmas day, you sent Jesus into the world. I believe he came to bring me home to you. I believe he is your son. I believe he died for my sins. I believe he rose again. I believe he is the Savior, and today I believe he is MY Savior
- CHOOSE. So right now God, I choose to trust in Jesus as my Only Hope. I choose to believe in him. I’m telling you god, as best as I can, that I’m believing in Jesus and receiving him as my Savior. And I ask you right now, because of Jesus alone, please save me.