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:
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...
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:
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.
This time of year the Christian blogosphere lights up with "Top Ten" lists. While I'll gladly add my "two cents", I do it with an expressed purpose: I want to influence what you read! What we read has the power to shape us and change us for good or bad. So here are my top ten reads of 2016.
10. Discipling: How to Helps Others Follow Jesus - Mark Dever
Making converts or church attenders isn't enough. It was the apostle Paul's desire to see everyone presented fully mature in Christ (Col. 1:28-29). It was Jesus' desire to see his followers obey everything he has commanded (Matt. 28:19-20). That's what this book helps us do.
9. The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms - Timothy Keller
Trivia question: what Old Testament book is most quoted and alluded to in the New Testament? Yep: Psalms. This is quintessential Keller: pithy, but profound and deeply nourishing to the soul.
8. Do More Better: A Practical Guide to Productivity - Tim Challies
Pastors need to be generalists. That is, they need to know something about a lot of things. Studying productivity is a "hobby" for me. Challies writes from a biblical worldview on this subject so it was both practical and biblical.
7. Honest Evangelism: How to Talk about Jesus Even When it's Tough - Rico Tice
Rico Tice has spent the better part of his life communicating the gospel to lost people in England. What I love about this book is how brutally honest he is about how difficult evangelism is for us. He writes, "I want to be honest: if you tell non-Christians about Jesus it will be painful." But in the end, it's hard to escape this reality: the true test of our love for people is demonstrated in whether or not we tell them about Jesus. Convicting!
6. The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance - Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters - Sinclair Ferguson
Don't let the intimidating title discourage you from picking up and reading this gem. Ferguson is a pastor who has spent years unraveling the knots of sin contained within each human heart. This book will help you discover the strands of legalism still present in your own heart and help you recover God's grace.
5. Putting Amazing Back into Grace: Embracing the Heart of the Gospel - Michael Horton
The world, the flesh, and the devil all exert their influence to try to get me to focus on what I have done or haven't done. This self-concentration is debilitating, depressing, and draining and I wasn't made to self-concentrate. I was made to God-concentrate. Horton's work has as its goal to get us to ponder the gospel from beginning to end. Grace is amazing because I have done nothing to merit it! Grace is all God! This book helped me get outside of myself.
4. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit - James K.A. Smith
Malls, movies, vacations, technology are what Smith would call "cultural liturgies." They are cultural rhythms and routines that covertly train us to love a certain version of the good life; they shape our wants, loves, and longings. But Jesus is after our wants, loves, and longings. Who wins this tug of war? What I appreciated most about Smith's book is that it opened my eyes to see how my daily routines are subtly shaping my desires. The million-dollar question becomes: what routines do I need in place to shape my desires to be Christ-centered? He answers that one. Read it.
3. Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines - David Mathis
Mathis put words to what I have long believed: "...the vast majority of our lives are lived spontaneously. More than 99 percent of our daily decisions about this and that happen without any immediate reflection. We just act. Our lives flow from the kind of person we are - the kind of person we have become - rather than some succession of time-outs for reflection." Amen! Enter the importance of the "spiritual discplines." Scripture, prayer, and fellowship shape our internal wiring. And it's from the inside that behavior (feelings, words, actions, thoughts, etc.) originate.
2. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World - Cal Newport
Confession: one reason I love Newport's book is that my personality is "an inch wide and a mile deep." I like to "go big" on just a couple of things. I hate being spread thin. Newport's book is a treatise on my natural bent. Having said that, there is much merit to the case he makes. Consider this equation:
High-Quality Work Produced = Time Spent x Intensity of Focus
21st century life in America doesn't naturally foster this. Instead, life encourages, even rewards, us to jump from one thing to the next giving little time and little focus to each task. From a Christian worldview, this is the opposite of "meditating" which God call us repeatedly to do with the Scriptures. Christians would spiritually benefit from heeding Newport's counsel.
1. The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures - D.A. Carson (editor)
At over 1200 pages in length, I have not yet read all of this one. However, I don't need to in order to see why it deserves to be #1. Your view of the Bible will shape every part of your life! For example, our view of the Bible will shape our views on sexuality, marriage, counseling, money, work, and the list goes on and on. The slightest erosion of Scripture's authority will result in an avalanche coming to rest at the feet of public opinion or individual preference as the final aribter of truth. This magnum opus deserves wide circulation as a powerfully preventative measure.