A Hollywood Christmas #3
Matthew 2:1-12 (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.
* [THEME] Brenda Roberts of Stone Mountain, Georgia is a Sunday School teacher. She was reading the story of Jesus’ birth to her day-care children one morning. As usual, she stopped to see if they understood, so she asked, “What do we call the three wise men?”
“The three maggots,” replied a bright 5-year-old.
“What gifts did the Magi bring baby Jesus?” the teacher corrected.
That same 5-year-old hollered, “Gold, frankensteins and smurfs!”
None of the Scripture I’ve ever read had frankensteins and smurfs in it. Maybe I’ve just read the wrong translations all these years.
So, what is about the Wise Men, the Magi, that fascinates us? Why are they so important to the birth of Christ and our celebration of Christmas? This morning we are going to be looking at the Wise Men through the filter of the Movie and Book “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”
Two little boys were sitting in the front row for a Christmas pageant at their church. The characters of the Christmas nativity scene were coming down the center aisle to the chancel area of the Church. When the wise men began to make their journey down the aisle, one of the boys nudged the other and said, “Look, here comes the king!”
The other boy jumped up in his seat and shouted, “So that’s Elvis!” (1)
Strictly speaking, when we sing “We Three Kings” we’re actually getting it wrong like that little boy. The Magi or Wise Men probably weren’t kings at all but philosophers, scientists of their day and astrologers or stargazers as they would have been called. They believed they could foretell the future through studying the stars.
Most Scholars think they came from Persia which is modern day Iran. But there are those who believe that the Magi actually came from as far away as Tibet or China. I don’t think their origin makes much difference.
We’ve also assumed that there were three Magi. We jump to that conclusion naturally because they brought the three gifts. But the Scripture doesn’t say there were three. It could have two or it could have ten, we don’t know. But still, there’s a lot we can learn from the Wise Men because their journey and their gifts were Unexpected, Unselfish and Unforgettable.
* [THEME] A. I’m sure that one of the last things that Mary and Joseph ever expected was to have company right after the birth of Jesus. The Shepherds were a surprise but the Wise Men and their gifts were totally Unexpected. But we’re not surprised because we know that’s exactly how God always seems to act. God seems to get great pleasure from doing the Unexpected and using the Unexpected for God’s work.
Mary and Joseph were nobodies. Sure they had some genealogical connection to David but so did a lot of other people. They were both from backwater little towns that didn’t even make it into the list of towns in the Talmud. They wouldn’t have shown up on Mapquest or Google.
Mary and Joseph were both the most unlikely candidates and completely Unexpected. But, still God used them. Just like God used the murderer Moses to the lead the people out of Egypt. Just like God used Abraham to start a nation. And just like he used Saul, who was breathing threats and murder against the early Christians. God transformed him into the Apostle Paul who was the greatest evangelist of all times. God always seems to use the least likely and the Unexpected.
B. Barbara Robinson certainly captured that in her book “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie then you’ve missed one of the most hilarious Christmas stories ever written. The book is aobut how the Herdman’s changed Christmas. There were six of them. This is just one short description. “They were just so all-around awful you could hardly believe they were real: Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie and Gladys – six stringy-haired kids all alike except for being different sizes and having different black and blue places where they had clonked each other.”
They lived over a garage at the bottom of Sproul Hill. Nobody used the garage anymore, but the Herdman’s used to bang the door up and down just as fast as they could and try to squash one another – that was their idea of a game. Where other people had grass in their front yard, the Herdman’s had rocks. And where other people had hydrangea bushes, the Herdman’s had poison Ivy.
There was also a sign in the yard that said BEWARE OF THE CAT.”
Through a series of events, the Herdman kids wind up playing all the major roles in the local Church’s Christmas pageant even though they have no clue who or what the story is about. It’s that learning process and the pageant itself which makes it the best Christmas pageant ever. Everything they do is Unexpected.
God uses the Unexpected to melt our hearts and to make us look at things differently. God uses the Unexpected to show the depth and breadth of God’s Grace, that it is not limited to a select few who have made themselves righteous. Through the Unexpected way God expresses and shows His Grace, God is basically saying Righteousness is mine and I determine who is righteous and who isn’t. And for most of us, that’s completely unexpected.
Sort of like the ham the Herdman’s brought as their “proper” gift for the baby Jesus. It was Unexpected of tem to give anything. It was Unexpected and it was Unselfish.
A. The Unselfish attitude of the Herdman’s and the Unselfish gifts of the Wise Men are reflections of God’s Unconditional Love for us. They’re reflections of God’s Unselfish gift of His Son for a world lost in darkness and sin. This season reminds us just how much God loves us and the sacrifice God went through to get our attention and prove that love.
One of my favorite authors is O’Henry. I love the little unexpected twists at the end of his stories. Most of have read O’Henry’s short story The Gift of The magi. It is a story about a desperately poor young couple living in New York around the turn of the century. Neither had enough money to buy a Christmas gift for the other so they each secretly went out and sold the only thing they had of worth. He sold his prized pocket watch to get her a set of Combs for her long hair. When he presented it to her she removed her scarf to reveal that she had her hair clipped and sold it to purchase a chain for his pocket watch. The point of the story is obvious. It’s not what you give that is important, it’s the thought behind the gift, the love that is reflected in the gift that’s important.
B. And God’s Unselfish, Unexpected, Unconditional love for us is so beautifully reflected in the “Yes” of both Mary and Joseph, in the worship of the shepherds; the journey and gifts of the Magi; the Angel chorus; the star and especially in the gift of His Son, wrapped in “wadded up clothes” as Gladys Herdman would have said. This child, this Unexpected, Unselfish gift of God reveals to us and all generations, the depth of God’s love for his children.
Somehow, the Wise Men understood the nature of God’s gift to the world. Their gifts were more fit for a King than for a babe born in a stable and laid in a manger. Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.
The gold we understand. I has universal appeal. It’s good everywhere. They probably used it to help them travel as they fled to Egypt hiding from Herod’s murderous crew.
But only a King or a Priest would have any need for Frankincense and Myrrh. Frankincense was used in the Temple to carry the prayers of the people to heaven And Mryyh was used in holy oil, especially oil used for anointing for healing. It was also used as one of the herbs and spices that was wrapped around the body when someone was buried.
Because of this, some have said these gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh were prophetic of Jesus Ministry as the King of the Jews, the great Physician and the Sacrificial Lamb who died for our sins.
A. I’m not real sure of all the symbolism, it fits but what is most important I think, is the gift of the Magi was Unforgettable, just like the details of Jesus birth. They were Unforgettable. And when something is Unforgettable it continues to live and breathe and change lives.
Fred Craddock tells about a missionary named Oswald Golter. Back in the 1940s, his mission board sent him the money to come home from North China after ten years of service there. When he docked at a port in India to await passage home, he found a boatload of refugees housed in a warehouse on the pier. The refugees weren’t wanted in many ports, so they were stranded there. It was Christmas time, so the missionary went to the warehouse to visit the refugees.
He introduced himself and then said, “Merry Christmas! What do you want for Christmas?”
They looked at him strangely and said “We’re not Christians. We don’t believe in Christmas.”
“I know,” said the missionary, “but what do you want for Christmas?”
“We don’t believe in Christmas.”
Golter would not be deterred and said, “If you did believe in Christmas what would you want for Christmas?” They finally relented and mentioned some wonderful German pastries they were fond of. Oswald Golter scoured the city until he found a bakery that made those pastries. He cashed in his ticket, bought baskets and baskets of the pastries, took them to the refugees, and wished them a merry Christmas.
Later he told the story to a group of seminarians. One of the students objected and said, “But sir, why did you do that for them? They weren’t Christians. They don’t even believe in Jesus.”
Golter said, “I know! But I do!” (2)
Like God’s gift to the world; like the Magi’s gift to the Christ child, those pastries were Unforgettable. Those refugees never forgot that act of kindness in Jesus’ name just like we can never forget the kindness and sacrifice of the Wise Men.
They were Unexpected, Unselfish and Unforgettable. The other reason they are so Unforgettable is because the have always symbolized the Grace of God. And I think they symbolize the Wesleyan aspects of Grace.
Before the Magi even knew who they were going to see or exactly where they were going, they began following a star. God had spoken to them through the signs all around them. In the midst of their studies, in their prayer and devotional life, God had revealed Himself and a portion of His plan in small doses designed to entice and lead them closer to God. If that’s not evidence of God’s Prevenient Grace, I don’t know what is. God’s grace goes before us preparing the way.
In a sense, their journey was like any Christian journey through life. Each day they got closer and closer to the Christ Child, this baby who would change the world. Through the continued leading of the star, they arrived at their destination and looked upon the face of the baby lying in a manger, Jesus.
All of their journey, the hardships, the surprises, the expectations, everything was a part of leading up to this moment when their journey was justified. You see, they heard God’s whisper and then set out on faith that God would lead them through the star, which He did. And in the end their faith was completely justified.
And finally, they returned home by another route, pondering all that had happened, all they had witnessed. That’s so like God’s Sanctifying Grace. We grow in our faith day by day and then one day it all becomes real and it all makes sense and it all comes alive for us.
It leaves us changed. It leaves us different. We’re not sure what that difference is yet, but we know we’re different. We’ve stepped over some invisible spiritual line and our lives have changed direction.
And because of that change, we know we will step into the future and live life by another route as we ponder all that has happened and try to become more like the one who brought about this change, Jesus.
It was Unexpected but the Unselfish love of God touched us and changed us and that became Unforgettable.
You don’t want to miss any of that this season. You want your heart and your spirit to be ready for the Unexpected. You want your and your spirit to be ready for the Unselfish love of God to touch you and hold and draw you near in a way that will be as Unforgettable as “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” not the book but the original.
This is the Word of the Lord for this day.
1. Doug Sabin, Kish Valley Grace Brethren Church, Reedsville, Pennsylvania
2. Fred Craddock, NEWSCOPE INSPIRATION SERIES tape, January 1990.