March 5, 2006
"The Character Of Christmas;"
"Wise Men: Seeking"
Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
One of the venerable old saints of the church jumped up and stomped out of the annual Christmas play being held at the church. The pastor couldn't figure out what was wrong so he hurried after him. When he caught up with the old man in the parking lot and asked what was wrong he was told, "Preacher, I've gone along with a lot of changes through the years, but this thing tonight just went too much, I mean who ever heard of the Three Wise Men walking up to the baby Jesus in the manger and presenting him with . . . gift certificates." (1)
Christmas has changed a lot since I was a child. But the basic reason and purpose of Christmas hasn't changed one single bit. The characters and the Character of Christmas as God's gift to the world will always stay the same. We may mangle it. We may wrap it in shiny paper. We may try to store it away with all the Christmas decorations, but like the star in the East, it will always be there guiding us back to the central purpose of Christmas, Salvation through God's unconditional love wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. That's what the Wise Men were seeking. And through that innocent baby, one of us and yet one with God, God was seeking each of us.
Only Matthew has the story of the visit of the Magi, the Scholars, the Kings or the Wise Men from the east. These characters of the familiar Christmas story don't really seem to fit in anywhere else. Who were they? Where did the come from? How far did they travel? Why were they there? Those are the questions preachers have pondered for years. The Scholars don't really know. There's a lot of speculation and that's why the title for these characters always seem to get translated differently. The various titles, at least in part, sort of defines what that translation assumes about these visitors. Let's look at the passage from Matthew 2:1-12 in the NRSV
 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,
 asking, "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."
 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;
 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
 '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.'"
 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
 Then 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."
 When 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.
 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
 On 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.
 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
We may not know a whole lot about the wise men but, from the story, we can know some things about their character and the Character of Christmas. And that's what this series is all about, "The Character Of Christmas." While there are a lot of things the Wise Men can teach us, there are two which I want to lift up today.
First, The Wise Men Sought Jesus. That was their whole purpose in this part of the story of Christ. The Wise Men came seeking Jesus.
When my youngest son, Josh, was little, about 3 or 4, we would put out a wooden nativity set he could play with without fear of it breaking. It happened to be one of those carved out of olive wood from Israel. I'll never forget his wide eyed wonder and amazement while I was telling the story with all the characters. Then the two of us set it all up in a very solemn manner.
We set up each of the characters: Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, the animals and shepherds and played around until we got all the right angles so you could see all the characters. The next day I came in and it was all rearranged. And that was OK, I knew Josh was fascinated with the set.
So, I unconsciously straightened all the characters again, leaving them in the same order Josh had put them, but turning them so you could see the faces of the Wise Men. A day or two later I noticed that they were all grouped closer together and the Wise Men were turned around with their back to the room. So I started straightening them out again when Josh told me he had put them like that.
I asked him why. He said, "The Wise Men came to see the baby Jesus, right? Then they'd be looking at him and not out at the room, wouldn't they?" I couldn't argue with that could I? So I didn't mess with the characters again.
Josh was right, the Wise Men would have been looking at Jesus. Jesus was the reason they traveled so far and so long. Of course, they'd be facing Jesus. Of course they'd be looking at Jesus. Because the purpose of the Wise Men was to seek Jesus.
What they did with who they found we don't know. Some say there were 12 of them and they scattered throughout the world, most going to Spain, spreading the Good News. But we don't know. What we do know is their mission, their purpose, their destiny was to find the baby Jesus, a King born in a stable and laid in a feed trough. The Wise Men Sought Jesus.
A. That's not all we learn from them though. We also learn that while The Wise Men Sought Jesus, Through Jesus God Sought Us.
Christmas isn't just about a few days off from work and school and presents and parties and family gatherings. It's the story of the beginning of Christianity. It's the story of the birth of Salvation and Grace. It's the story of our second chance.
From my perspective it's the only way we can ever really make sense out of all the unanswered questions floating around in the world. This isn't some fairy tale. This is the thing we hoped for and wanted every day of our lives. We just didn't know it until we saw Him, heard Him and met Him. This is the promise of God, in the flesh.
When the angels sang "Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth, goodwill towards all people." It wasn't just words of praise. It was a pronouncement of the promise of God. God's promise that we can have each day.
Hallmark cards have been saying it for years . . . but it's just as effective today as when they first said it, ˜IF YOU CARE, THEN SEND THE VERY BEST!" God cares. God sent us His very best, not for one day a year, not for a season or a particular time, but for every day of our lives.
B. How many of you or your brothers had one of the big Lionel Electric Train Sets? Yeah, that's what we all wanted when we were younger. Especially that steam engine where the headlight worked and steam actually came out of the smokestack. That was the coolest.
I remember my brother Glen playing with our train one day. He ran the train around the curves too fast and it derailed. Glen bent over the train and tried to put it back on the track but wasn't having any luck. Dad saw what was going on and came over to help. He said, "You can't do that from above; you have to get down beside it." Then Dad lay down on the floor beside the train and track so he could see to place the wheels of the train just so and the train would be back on the track.
I happen to think that's a great way to think about the incarnation. Because of our disobedience to God and the sin in our lives, the human race had derailed. Our lives needed to be put back on the track of life. It couldn't be done from above; God had to come down beside us. That's what God did in Jesus. God took off the robes of heaven and put on the rags of our earthly existence. God clothed Himself in our flesh and blood and came to live among us in the person of His Son Jesus.
Through Jesus, God Sought Us in order to show us and share with us God's Unconditional Love and Grace, through forgiveness and resurrection. That promise came wrapped in swaddling clothes.
The Wise Men's Character revealed God's Character. The Wise Men Sought Jesus, and Through Jesus God Sought Us to fulfill God's promise in our lives.
For forty-three years, at one minute after midnight on Christmas Eve, Bert Holloway of Cambridge, England has handed his wife, Ethel a love letter. The gift is a tradition that they started when they were first married. Mrs. Holloway says she treasures all the love letters she's received from her husband. (2)
Every year at this time we celebrate the greatest treasure ever given to humanity. It was a love letter from God in the form of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. That's the Character Of Christmas.
The Wise Men Sought Him and through Him God Sought Us. I hope you'll take the time this Christmas to read that love letter. And then take the time to read it every single day.
1. Church Humor Digest, (Memphis: Castle Books), p. 87. (adapted)
Barclay, William: Daily Study Bible of the New Testament (WordSearch Bible Software Version)
Homiletics, (Communications Resources, Inc., Canton, OH)
Lectionary Homiletics, (Lectionary Homiletics, Inc. Midlothian, VA)
Dynamic Preaching, (Seven Worlds Publishing, Knoxville, TN)
The Clergy Journal, (Logos Productions, Inc., Inver Grove Heights, MN)
Preaching Magazine (Preaching Resources, Jackson, TN)
Circuit Rider, (The United Methodist Publishing House, Nashville, TN)
The Interpreter's Bible, (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1953)
The New Interpreter's Bible, (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1995)
Lights, Camera...Faith by Peter Malone with Rose Pacatte (Daughters of St. Paul, 2002)
Praying the Movies by Edward McNulty, (Geneva Press, Lousville, KY, 2001)
Movie Clips for Kids (Group Publishing, Inc., Loveland, CO, 2002)
Bore No More, Vols 1 & 2 (Group Publishing, Inc., Loveland, CO, 1995 & 1999)
Group's Blockbuster Movie Illustrations, Vols 1 & 2 (Group Publishing, Inc., Loveland, CO, 2001 & 2003)
Movie Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, by Craig Brain Larson and Andrew Zahn(Zondervan Publishing, Inc., Grand Rapids, MI, 2003)
Videos That Teach: Vols 1-3 by Doug Fields & Eddie James (Zondervan Publishing, Inc., Grand Rapids, MI, 1999, 2002, 2004)
SermonWriter by Dick Donovan (Copyright, Richard Niell Donovan, 2000
The Sermon Mall
Deacon Sil's Homiletic Resources
Richard Fairchild Lectionary Resources
Ministry and Media
Internet Movie Database
Preaching.com's Movie Ministry
The Text This Week Movie Theme Index
The Source For Youth Ministry Movie Clips