From Matthew 2:1-12, to find joy at Christmas we need to:
1) Slow down
The Magi’s question and statement is worth examining:
“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Think about this statement:
- How did they connect a star to a baby that had been born?
- How did they connect a baby who had been born to being the king of the Jews?
- Why would non-Jewish scholars, possibly from Babylonian descent, religious outsiders, hundreds of miles away conclude it’s worth the trip to worship the baby who had been born king of the Jews?
There aren’t clear answers to these questions, but a number of scholars conclude that the Magi’s interest in a wide array of literature, may have led them to Numbers 24:17 in the OT:
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.”
The star the Magi noticed, provoked a thorough investigation which would have at some point led them to this passage in Number 24.
So what’s happened here? A star visible to the Magi from hundreds of miles away, would have certainly been visible to Herod. Yet Herod missed it. The Magi slowed down to observe the world around them. They paid attention. Once they spotted the star, they slowed down to ask bigger and deeper questions. You can easily picture them saying to each other, “You see that star? I wonder what that’s about?” Herod would have certainly seen it. But thought nothing of it.
Once the Magi did see the star, they slowed down to research answers to their questions and explanations to what was happening.
Robert Levine wrote an interesting book entitled, A Geography of Time. In it, he compares the tempos of various cultures around the world. He writes this:
“People are prone to move faster in places with vital economies, a high degree of industrialization, larger populations, cooler climates, and a cultural orientation toward individualism…The fastest people we found were in the wealthier North American, Northern European, and Asian nations.”
He goes on to make the case that in faster cultures, slowing down is actually frowned upon.
We live in a culture that doesn’t value slowing down. Yet in this story, slowing down was a precursor to the Magi experiencing great joy at Christmas.
2) Sustain a journey
If the Magi “from the east”, came from the geographic area once known as Babylon, their trip to Jerusalem would have been around 500 miles. To try and put this into perspective, traveling at 3 miles per hour for 12 hours a day would have taken two weeks. Would you spend 14 days walking 12 hours a day for a star?
If Jesus was in Bethlehem at the time, he was just six miles from Herod in Jerusalem. A trip that would have taken 2 hours. The end of the story results in the Magi being overjoyed. A great joy is in store for those willing to endure an arduous journey.
In our instant gratification society that is averse to slow and methodical, we give up too easily. We throw in the towel. We want the joy, but we don’t want to live through what it takes to get the joy. If you want to find joy at Christmas time, you can’t begin the journey in December and hope to have it 25 days later. Finding joy at Christmas isn’t a matter of downloading an app. Finding joy at Christmas is a matter of undertaking an arduous journey tolerating slow progress in getting there.
Construction on the Cologne Cathedral began in 1248. The construction of it went through ebbs and flows until it was finally completed according to the original plan in 1880; 632 years after the turn of the first shovel. 21st century contractors have said even with modern engineering and materials it would be impossible to duplicate the Cologne Cathedral. The only way to build the Cologne Cathedral is through the slow, methodical, and patient skill of countless hand-craftsmen. Sometimes there’s only one way to a destination.
The same is being said in this text of our pursuit and experience of joy. Sometimes it can’t be fast tracked. Sometimes the only way to joy is through a slow, methodical, and patient journey.
3) Get off the throne
Herod and all Jerusalem were “disturbed” (lit. afraid). Given how Herod responds a little later to the news of a new king being born in his backyard, it’s reasonable to conclude Herod’s fear gave way to jealousy and rage. Why did he react so negatively to the birth of a new Jewish king?
We need to know a bit about Herod to understand better his reaction to this news. He was born in 73 BC. The Roman Senate appointed him the Jewish king in 40 B.C. So by the time Jesus is born, he’s been the king for decades. Herod was a wealthy man and politically gifted. He engaged in some of the finest building projects in the Mediterranean world. Even his enemies admired his vision for that. But Herod had an insatiable desire for power. He was so paranoid over losing his power that it led him to fits of rage culminating in him killing one of his close associates, one of his wives, and at least two sons.
His reaction to the news of Jesus birth while vile, is not surprising. Another king was a threat to him. Another king could lead to his own demise.
The most effective route to fear, jealousy, and anger is to be your own king. When we hear Herod’s biographical snapshots, we perceive there to be a great distance between who we think we are and who he was. We’re not that different. We all desire what Herod desired. We all desire to be our own king.
How do we put ourselves on the throne? We do this in our pursuit of…
- Autonomy – “No one can tell me what to do. I am free to do as I please. I get to call the shots. I don’t fall under the authority of someone or something else. I am entitled to get what I want. I am entitled to demand that other people make me happy.” This is the voice of autonomy. The pursuit of autonomy inevitably leads to fear, jealousy, and rage.
- Admiration – “I am important. I am worthy. Treat me as so.” The pursuit of admiration inevitably leads to fear, jealousy, and rage.
We make really bad kings. And the pursuit of kingship will inevitably leave us fearful, jealous, and angry. We weren’t made to be kings. So if the pursuit of autonomy and admiration inevitably leaves us fearful, jealous, and angry, what sort of pursuit will lead us to joy?
The Magi crown Jesus king. To them, Jesus is their king. They are his subjects. His servants. His admirers. His worshipers. The journey to joy begins by slowing down to ask bigger and deeper questions and to seek out explanations to those bigger and deeper questions. The journey to joy continues through the rough terrain of a slow, methodical, and patient journey. And the journey to joy ends by putting Jesus on the throne.
How do I do this?
I put Jesus on the throne:
- When I give up my desire to call the shots in my life.
- When I give complete control to Jesus and let his word be the last word.
- When I stop craving the admiration of others and instead direct all admiration to him.
- When I stop demanding people treat me as important and instead direct all praise to Jesus.
Notice what flows out of the Magi’s joy: worship and giving. They bowed down and worshiped him and gave him gifts. Worship and generosity are signs you’ve found joy in Jesus. So look at your worship and generosity. What do they tell you about the true state of your joy in Jesus?
Let me finish with one concluding word:
This story is an encouragement to those who are distant and it’s a warning to those who are close. It’s an encouragement to religious outsiders and a warning to religious insiders. Herod, the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and all of Jerusalem were religious insiders. They were church attenders. They were Bible readers. The were prayer warriors. But in the end they missed Christmas and experienced anything but joy.
The Magi were religious outsiders. They were distant. So maybe for you, attending church isn’t something you get around to a whole lot. Maybe church is infrequent in your life. Maybe you don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about the existence of Jesus and what implications his life and death may have for you. Maybe reading the Bible or talking to God in prayer isn’t a staple in your life.
Here’s an encouragement to you. In this story, it was those who were most distant who found Christmas and received the most joy. It was the Magi who were farthest from the action who ended up finding Christmas and experiencing the deepest joy. If church, Jesus, the Bible, prayer hasn’t been a staple in your life, Christmas is for you. Jesus’ birth is calling out to you so that you will slow down to ask deeper and bigger questions, sustain a slow and methodical journey, and bow before him in worship and find exceedingly great joy.