Lay Reader = Ephesians 3:1-12
3This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— 2for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, 3and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, 4a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. 5In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: 6that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 7Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. 8Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.
This is our final week looking at how we can choose to have an attitude of gratitude. Next week we start a new series looking at the Gospel. If your neighbor or your child or your relative asked you, “What is the Gospel?” would you have an answer ready? How deep would it be? What has God done in your life, and how can you be ready to articulate that if asked?
But this week we are landing the plane on Christmas. The final pieces of your nativity scene are ready to arrive – the Wise Men from the East. I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m going to keep beating this drum until I finally win. If you have a nativity set, and if it comes with Wise Men, keep in mind that the Wise Men didn’t get there until almost two years after Jesus was born. That’s why Herod in our text today orders the boys under two to be killed. So if you put out the Wise Men in your nativity scene, at least put them over to the side so that they are just “on their way” instead of already arrived. Just humor me on this, please!
And who are the Wise Men from the East? Well…we don’t really know. Some say they were Persians. Some say they were Medes who were conquered by the Persians and they eventually became astrologers and advisers to the king – kind of like Daniel if you remember his story from the Old Testament. When Marco Polo journeyed through the Persian territory on his journey to China, he actually found a village that maintained they were the place of origin for these three Wise Men from the East. But really, to quote my New Testament professor, “we don’t know.”
We do know that they were similar to many other wise and learned people of the time. They studied the stars for signs from the gods about the present and the future. We’ll hear more about that later, but suffice it to say that they were big believers in astrology. Without further ado, Matthew 2.
2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The Right Motivation
“I’ll take eating advice from him whenever I can’t beat him in a fight.” That was long my dad’s internal response when the doctor told him to change his diet to be healthier. And to my dad’s credit, he was in decent shape heading into retirement, even if he had a couple of hamburgers a week.
But as he entered retirement, he got a routine heart check and they found something. It had no symptoms but deadly consequences – they called it the “widowmaker.” The best course of action? Exercise more and change your diet.
This time, my dad didn’t size up the doctors in the room to see if any of them could best him with fisticuffs. He listened. Because he was motivated. My dad’s vegetable repertoire has increased seventeen thousand percent, though I think my mom only tells my dad about half of the veggies hidden in bigger dishes. That’ll be our little secret.
Why didn’t he change his diet and exercise more the first time his doctor told him to? I mean, all of you do what your doctor tells you to do all the time, right? It wasn’t due to a lack of knowledge. It wasn’t due to a lack of ability. It was due to a lack of motivation. Once the proper motivation was supplied, “presto chango!”
What does it take to motivate you with your health? With your family or relationships? With your faith? What does it take to motivate you?
As I mentioned before, the Wise Men from the East, the Magi, were experts in astrology. The basic concept in astrology is that the configuration of the stars at your birth has a strong influence on your destiny. Usually, the motion of the stars is pretty predictable, especially if you have good record-keeping.
So whenever something new appeared in the night sky, it signaled something important to the astrologers. The location of the new star was interpreted by the astrologers as a special message from the gods. A special person with a special destiny needed a special act by the gods to send a new object in the night sky to portend that special person’s destiny. For example, proximity to Jupiter in the sky might imply a new king. Proximity to Mars in the sky might imply a mighty warrior. Again, the basic idea is that the person being born is so special, the gods themselves moved celestial objects to mark the occasion. Some people smoke a cigar to mark a birth, some people put pink or blue balloons in their yard to mark a birth, other people have celestial objects moved by a deity. Whatever floats your boat, right?
But that’s not all. Archaeologists have found writings from nations all around the Mediterranean and its environs. Around this time, we know the wise men of the Middle East were expecting the savior of the world to be born soon. The Egyptians were expecting the savior of the world to be born soon. The Greeks were expecting the savior of the world to be born soon. The Romans were expecting the savior of the world to be born soon. In fact, some thought Caesar Augustus was that savior.
So that’s the motivation for the Magi to journey from Persia, cross the desert, and give gifts to this new baby. Everyone was expecting a savior to be born soon, and this baby was going to be something special. This baby had a destiny – maybe the ultimate destiny. And they wanted in at the ground floor.
Side note here, and I warn you this is one of my theories that has literally zero backing in the Bible. So take this with a few scoops of salt. The Magi were probably employed by the Persian king, although the gap between “employed” and “enslaved” might have been pretty narrow in their case. So perhaps – perhaps – they crossed the desert to try to offer their services to this new king with a destiny? Maybe they wanted to switch kings? They didn’t get a new patron, but they did get to meet the Savior of the World, so it’s a win some, lose some kind of deal.
Responses to the Revelation
You know what one of the most annoying parts of parenting is? I bet every parent can identify with this. One of the most annoying parts of parenting is saying something to your kids…and nothing. No response. As if you had not spoken or did not exist. Or both. And my kids aren’t even teenagers yet.
So if the birth of Jesus is a message from God – if the birth of Jesus is a love letter from God – what’s our response? Ignoring the message is one response, but that one’s pretty annoying. What are some other responses?
The Magi had a definite response. “I will follow where God leads me.” Even if it’s across a desert. Even if I have to part with my gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Even if I have to trick the Roman governor to escape safely. I will follow where God leads me.
Where is God leading you? What journey or decision might God be leading you toward?
The Jewish scholars had a very different response. Their response is like this. Imagine two people. First person: “Did you know that Meghan Markle is pregnant? Oh my goodness, another royal baby! And she just updated us on her due date! Isn’t it exciting?!?”
Person two: <shrug> “Meh”
That’s what the Jewish scholars did. I mean, these Magi just crossed two year’s worth of desert to find this baby, and the scholars can tell them which city he was in. But…”Meh.”
They didn’t even bother to go with the Magi to see if they were right. The couldn’t be bothered to make the six mile journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. So their response was, “I will learn about God, but I won’t act on my knowledge.” They know all the little details about the Bible, but that knowledge never journeys from their head to their hearts or their hands or their feet. It just stagnates like a scummy pond.
How much have you learned about God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit? How much have you put it into practice? How much have you had the <shrug> “Meh” response?
If you keep reading the next few verses after our text today, Herod’s response is to try to kill Jesus by killing all the boys in the city who are less than two years old. That’s a bit intense, so let’s dial that knob back a little bit. Herod’s response to the birth of Jesus is, “I will overcome God’s threatening plan.”
Have you held any parts of your life apart from your faith because you’re afraid God’s plan will lead you where you don’t want to go? Do you have some exceptions carved out in your life where Jesus’ teachings don’t count? That’s opposing God’s plan – same thing as Herod, though admittedly with far less killing.
If you rewind to the birth of Jesus, we see two other responses from Mary and Joseph. If you remember, the text says that Mary’s response is, “I will treasure what God is doing in my heart.” She noticed and appreciated and treasured what God is doing. How’s your God-dar? How good are you at noticing and appreciating and treasuring what God is doing in your midst?
And then Joseph is told by an angel to keep Mary as his wife, that Jesus is from God. And his response is, “I will do what God tells me to do.” He was fine taking God’s orders. Has God ever given you marching orders? Did you march or did you run or delay?
One of my former students is a fellow tech geek, so we’ve stayed in touch over the years as we update each other on our projects. But a few years ago he developed a major health problem and he couldn’t attend college anymore. He was sure it was only a semester, and he could get back on track. That was three or four years ago, and his health issues haven’t abated yet. He can barely leave his house.
He just checked in a few weeks ago, and he wanted to know how Charlie was doing, how he should be praying. He told me how he was concerned for one of his relative’s waning faith. He sent me pictures of his latest projects. He updated me on how he was still connecting with people over video chat even though he can’t get out of the house.
Many people would feel defeated. He responded with hope. Many people would blame God. He responded by relying on his faith for that hope. Many people would give up their dreams. He responded by choosing new dreams that are still possible from his house. That, sisters and brothers, is a faithful response to Jesus.
The Magi responded with, “I will follow where God leads me.”
The Jewish scholars responded with, “I will learn about God, but I won’t act on it.”
Herod responded with, “I will oppose God’s threatening plan.”
Mary responded with, “I will treasure what God is doing in my heart.”
Joseph responded with, “I will do what God tells me to do.”
My former student responded with, “I will rely on my faith.”
How will you respond to the birth of Jesus? Amen.