Wednesday, December 29, 2010

When Wise Men Behaved Like Children

The oldest continuously worshiping church in the world is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church is built above a cave that many believe to be the birthplace of Christ. Now the beautiful thing about this church is that in order to enter through the Church of the Nativity one must pass through a very low gate.  You cannot enter without bending low; and then again when one approaches the cave itself, only those who stoop low, only those who make themselves small, like a child, may enter. Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18: 3). In Matthew 2: 1-12, we learn about the wise men who behaved like children in order to find the Christ Child; and in so doing show us how to find him too…

Like curious children, these wise men said, “Why?”  “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem...” following a star (Matt. 2: 1). Nothing is more childlike then curiosity, then the willingness to go on an adventure of discovery. The first question these wise men asked is not directly stated in this passage…but it is definitely implied. The first question these wise men asked was “Why?” as in “Why did that strange star appear in the east?” It is a sad day indeed when we stop learning, when we stop seeking, when we stop asking questions. May God save us from a jaded indifference that assumes we’ve already seen it all, done it all, and know it all.

Now these wise men or “magi” from Persia studied the motion of the stars, and so when they saw the star (literally, the astral phenomenon) they asked themselves, “Why?” Why has this light appeared in the sky? I asked my girls what they were most curious about when it came to the story of the wise men…and they said, “The star.” I am confident that these wise men saw an extremely bright object in the sky which clearly communicated to them that someone very special was to be born in the land of the Jewish people; and that this “star” led them to Bethlehem. But what was this "astral phenomenon" exactly?

Just over 2000 years ago there was a rare conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn three times in a portion of the sky known as “the Fishes”. Jupiter signified the birth of a world ruler. Saturn was the star of the Jews/Palestine; and the fish constellation signified “The Last Days.” They interpreted this alignment of stars to mean that a great Ruler who was to usher in a new age was to be born in Palestine the following year. We don’t “think” that people interpreted “the star” in this way, we “know” they did… from ancient Babylonian calendar tablets that speak about this event the year before. The wise men saw something in the sky that pointed to an event of great significance… and so they followed the star and its message to Jerusalem. For an excellent survey of opinions on the star phenomenon, see The Magi & the Star by Michael J. Miller.

As I said, the first question these wise men asked was, “Why?” They were wise because they asked questions; they were wise because they knew they didn’t know it all. They were wise because they were not afraid to act like curious children. On Christmas Eve, one of our middle school boys had a simple line in a Christmas play loosely based on the story of The Little Drummer Boy.  Playing the part of the Bethlehem star, he kept repeating confidently, “I’m a star!" But the big moment came when he declared to the wise men, "I'm a star…but the real star is in there!” (pointing to the manger).  The wise men knew who the real star was…and their curiosity brought them to where he was.  May God give us the curiosity of a child. May he give us the courage to ask the most important questions of life: Why am I here? Why did God bring me into this world? What is God’s will and how can I be part of it?

Like trusting children, these wise men, asked “Where?”  “‘Where is this child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened… 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…” (Matt. 2: 2-5).  Notice that these wise men believed so strongly that they were being led to this Child that they boldly walked into Jerusalem and asked Herod, ‘Where is he?’ In other words, they had faith that he would be there!

Last Sunday, the day after Christmas, I took a quick survey of our families during the worship service. "Who was first to get up Christmas morning?" I asked the children. "Was it you, or was it your mom or dad?"  I was wagering that mom and dad did not have to set their alarm clocks on Christmas morning; and the quick survey proved my theory.  These kids were the first out of bed...up at dawn…knocking on the door...tugging at their parents' arms...begging them to get up -- even if (like me) you went to bed at 1:00 in the morning after leading a late night Candle Light Service.  There was no mercy!  And why do children do this? Because of those presents under the tree. They knew…they believed…they trusted that what was in those beautifully wrapped presents was something wonderful, something special, something good; and that trust was confirmed.  Which is what happened when these wise men with childlike trust inquired of King Herod where the Messiah was to be born. Their faith was confirmed.... confirmed by the words of the scribes and Pharisees from God’s word, confirmed by the promise of God that the Messiah was coming: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times" (Micah 5: 2).

Like amazed children, these wise men said, “Wow!”  “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” (Matt. 2: 11-12). The word that describes the attitude of these wise men when they come to Bethlehem is wonder (or “Wow!” for short). They were “overwhelmed with joy” at the sight of the star which with the aid of God’s word led them to Bethlehem… and then even more amazed when they saw the One they had come to greet…the Christ Child before whom they “knelt down to pay homage.”

Children teach adults how to say, “Wow!” When a child is born, there is an adult who is saying, “Wow!” When a toddler first begins to walk, there is an adult who is saying,  “Wow!” When a baby says her first words, someone is saying, “Wow!”  I read about several children that made me say “Wow!” recently.  In April of this year, 16 year old Alex Griffith, who was adopted as a baby from a Krasnoyarsk Russia hospital by a Maryland couple, raised over $60,000 to design and build a playground for the orphans back home. Alex has cerebral palsy. In August, 9 year old Logan Hearn saved the life of his 2 year old brother when he saw him floating face down in the family pool thanks to a CPR class he took and his willingness to correct his distraught parents who were doing it incorrectly. In March, a 12 year-old girl saved the lives of hundreds of island inhabitants off the coast of Chile, when she sounded the village alarm following the massive 8.8 earthquake warning them of the giant tsunami wave that soon followed....

Children teach us to say, “Wow!” And no Child has wowed us more than the One born in Bethlehem’s stable…. We wonder at the humility of our Lord who chose to be born not in a palace, but in poverty, in a cave most likely, where he lay in the crook of a woman's arms. The same amazement that we feel even today in his presence…was felt by the wise men also as they knelt down to worship, open their treasure chests, and then return by another road.  First, they knelt down and worshiped, they gave honor to the King of kings. Next, they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts (and the best gift of all, was the gift of their love and their loyalty). Then, warned by an angel, they returned by another road. Now that’s a phrase we can easily pass over. But it’s an important one. King Herod wanted these wise men to return to Jerusalem and inform him where the Christ Child was…not so that he could worship him, but so that he could destroy him. But they were so amazed at the Christ Child that they chose to obey the heavenly vision instead of King Herod.

As a boy, one of my favorite memories was our summer vacations at my grandparents’ farm house in Belen, New Mexico, where my dad and his sister grew up. We looked forward to seeing our grandma and grandpa, and to playing with our cousins. Now beside their house were some huge cottonwood trees that the four cousins would play beneath for hours… swinging on the tire swing, building forts and lighting a few stolen matches; going fishing with grandpa, and hunting arrowheads with grandma. We didn’t care about the heat of August or the mosquitos…. they were some of the happiest days of our childhood.  About four years ago, we had a wonderful family reunion in the Sacramento mountains of New Mexico…and after it was over we drove up to Belen; to the land on which my grandparents’ house was built. Grandma and Grandpa are in heaven now, and the house is no longer standing, but the huge cottonwood trees are still there, just as strong and beautiful as ever. So I decided to take some fallen wood from that tree and with it I fashioned a two foot cross, which hangs in my office. That cross reminds me of my childhood…and the Great Family Reunion that is coming for all who trust in the Savior. It reminds me of the little town of Belen, which is Spanish for Bethlehem. And it reminds me of Jesus who said, “Let the little children come to me for to such belongs the Kingdom of God.” Christmas is past…but the same Jesus who was born in the little town of Bethlehem invites you to come to him today as the wise men did two thousand years ago…with the curiosity, the simple trust, and the wide-eyed amazement of children as we receive Gods’ greatest gift…who is Christ himself.

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