Overwhelmed By The Presence Of Christ
Admittedly, there has been a great deal of confusion surrounding the visit of the wise men. What exactly are "wise men" anyway? How many of them were there? And when did the wise men visit Jesus?
I recently read a little boy's understanding of the wise men which gives us yet one more slant on this story. This boy returned from Sunday school one day with a new perspective on the wise men from the East who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. The boy was so excited he just had to tell all his friends. This is how he told it:
"I learned in Sunday school today all about the very first Christmas. Ya see, there wasn't a Santa way back then, so these 3 skinny guys on camels had to deliver all the toys!".
Of course, there is more to the wise men than men on camels delivering gifts. It is worth noting that the more accurate term for the "wise men" is "magi"--originally the name of a Persian priestly caste, but later, this title was used widely for magicians and astrologers(France, Matthew, 81).
How many magi were there? Traditionally, we think of 3 wise men, but this is not necessarily the case. Nowhere does Matthew tell us how many magi there were--all we can be sure of is that there was more than one.
When did the magi visit Jesus? You might think by watching a typical Sunday school Christmas performance that the magi were right on the heels of the shepherds--arriving minutes after the actual birth--but this was not the case. Our text today explains that "after Jesus was born . . . the magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem"(2:1). From Jerusalem, the magi still had to travel to Bethlehem(2:8). And when King Herod committed his massacre, he estimated that the "King of the Jews" was possibly as old as 2 years--and we read that he got this estimate from the magi(2:16).
Now these are the details surrounding the visit of the magi, but there is much more for us to gain from this passage than just the details of their visit. We learn, more importantly, from the magi of the East, how we should respond to the presence of Christ.
The response of the magi to the presence of Christ begins with the star over Bethlehem. As astrologers with a measure of religious faith, the magi understood that this particular star over Bethlehem pointed to the birth and presence of the Jewish Messiah,
". . . and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy"(2:10).
The star, which was the indicator of the presence of the Christ child, caused the magi to "rejoice". And notice the emphasis Matthew gives us here--Matthew doesn't simply report that that magi "rejoiced", but he reports that they "rejoiced exceedingly with great joy".
Rejoicing "exceedingly with great joy"--how often does that describe us when we are in the presence of Christ? And note, that as Christians with the completed Bible, we are aware that Christ is always with us. When we read then, about how the magi responded to the physical presence of Christ, we must keep in mind the reality that we are always in the presence of Christ. This, perhaps, is why the apostle Paul insists that we should "rejoice in the Lord always"(Phil. 4:4).
This exhortation--to "rejoice in the Lord always"--should not only challenge us, but it should also excite us--the Christian life is intended to be a joyful life. Yet as I say that, I realize, that for many people, Christmas is not a joyful time.
It is during the Christmas season when we seem to most profoundly miss those people in our life who have passed on. It is during the Christmas season when we become more prone to anxiety and depression. It is during the Christmas season when we seem to worry most about finances. For these reasons, the Christmas season is not always a joy for every individual.
There is, however, a way to overcome the sadness and anxiety we experience this time of year. The way in which Christians are able to win back their joy is simply to rejoice in the presence of Christ. But, in order to do this, we must first recognize where our difficulties begin. Our difficulties begin when we focus on our circumstances rather than our status as a child who is loved by the Creator of the Universe.
We must remember that Mary and Joseph were not overjoyed with their circumstances either. It is true, neither Mary or Joseph rejoiced at the news of Mary's pregnancy. Mary, as you know, was pregnant out of wedlock. "How can this be?" she asked the angel(Lk. 1:34). Matthew tells us that Joseph initially wanted "to put Mary away quietly"(Mt. 1:19). Mary was confused, Joseph wanted to break up--neither were happy with their circumstances.
But they began to have a change of heart. An angel convinced Joseph that he should not leave Mary; and Luke chapter one records Mary's new perspective on things, "My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my saviour"(Lk. 1:46, 47).
The lesson to be learned here is clear--Christmas season will be most joyful, life will be most joyful, when we take our attention off our circumstances and learn to "rejoice in the Lord".
Granted, rejoicing in the Lord requires an element of faith--we are called to rejoice without ceasing in something that we cannot see or touch. For this reason, we should be encouraged by the faith of the magi--they were rejoicing, yet they had not yet seen Christ, but only the star. The star was all the assurance the magi needed to be convinced of the presence of Christ. So we must stop asking God to rearrange the stars to spell out a sign for us and recognize that the Bible gives us reason to have assurance in the presence of Christ. And this presence should generate in us tremendous joy.
The second response the magi had to the presence of Christ, we read about in verse 11, "And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshipped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh".
The first response the magi had to the presence of Christ was that they "rejoiced exceedingly with great joy" and the second response they had to the presence of Christ was that they "worshipped Him" by giving Him "gifts".
We have already asked ourselves how often are we overwhelmed with joy in the presence of Christ, and now we must ask, "How often are we moved by the presence of Christ to worship Him by bringing Him gifts?".
"How are we to do that?", we ask, "What kind of gifts can we bring Christ?". The apostle Paul tells us plainly in Romans, chapter 12, how we are to worship God and what kind of gifts we are to bring: "I urge you . . . to present your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship"(Rom. 12:1). Gold, frankincense, and myrrh might have been acceptable to the infant Christ, but to the resurrected Christ Paul tells us we must "present (our) bodies" as our manner of worship.
Some people think that all it takes to be a Christian is to scribble a cheque or to give a few hours of service here and there on special projects for the church. This is not what it means to worship Christ. Remember, Paul wants a "living sacrifice"--he wants every part of our life to be a form of worship to God. That means your marriage, your role as a parent, your job--all of these things are to be treated as contexts for worshipping God. This is not meant to be a burden. In fact, what we should doing is making the connection between the two responses of the magi to the presence of Christ--rejoicing and worshipping.
We are told to "rejoice in the Lord always", but we don't have the foggiest idea how to get out of this "blue funk" we are in. How do we transcend our circumstances and experience joy in Christ? We experience joy in the Christian life when we worship Christ.
For many of us, we leave church on Sunday so full of joy after an hour of worship only to have the rest of the week bring us stress. Why does this happen? This happens because when we leave church we often cease to worship God. If we could only comprehend how to worship God, Monday to Friday, then we might be the joyful Christians we should be.
The Bible does not tell us how visiting the baby Jesus affected the individual lives of the magi after they left, but we do know how they responded when they were in the presence of Christ--they rejoiced in the symbol of His presence and they worshipped Him by bringing gifts.
Friends, Christ is always with us. He is with us right now. He wants you to rejoice in Him, and He wants you to worship Him by bringing gifts. Not material gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh--Jesus Christ wants you. Jesus was born for you. Jesus died for you. And now Christ invites you to worship Him daily. The choice is yours, but know this--the key to true joy is found in worshipping Jesus Christ. Amen.