In order to relate correctly to someone, you need to know who they are!
Shortly after I got married, I was enjoying a day out with my wife's family. As we walked in single file along a lake in Yorkshire, I grabbed my wife and gave her a very friendly cuddle. Unfortunately, I got a bit of a shock when I realised that the lady walking in front of me was not in fact my wife, but my wife's sister! Fortunately, she had a good sense of humour but that day I learned the lesson that in order to relate correctly to someone you need to know who they are.
Matthew had two very clear aims when he wrote his gospel. He wanted us to know exactly who Jesus was and he wanted us to relate correctly to him. This morning we're looking at the part of Matthew's gospel that was read out earlier and so it would be a great help if you can turn to Matthew 2.1-12.
I chose this reading because today is epiphany. As we remember the visit of the wise men from the east, we rejoice in the good news that Jesus is truly the light for the whole world, that the good news of Jesus is for all people everywhere!
In this passage, Matthew wants us to know that baby Jesus, born in Bethlehem, is the King of all Kings, the promised Messiah of ages past who has come to save us all from our sins. But he doesn't just want us to know that - he wants us to respond to that awesome reality by bowing down before Jesus and worshipping him. Just like those wise men from the east.
Ok that is where we are heading. Let's take a closer look at what Matthew has to say and what we see first is that:
1. Jesus is the Messiah
Those who first read Matthew's gospel were Jewish. They knew that God had promised many years earlier to send the 'messiah' or the Christ – God's chosen one who would be their saviour and king forever. God had revealed to them in the Old Testament what to look out for, so they could recognise and welcome him when he came. They had various clues to help them recognise and welcome him when he came. And Matthew presents to them evidence that Jesus is the one they have been waiting for.
So in chapter 1, Matthew tells us that Jesus was a descendant of King David, and was born of a virgin and was given the name Jesus. All of these were signs to look out for, clues so they could recognise and welcome him when he came.
Here – in chapter 2 – we have two more big clues. First, in verses 1 to 3, Matthew points out that foreigners came to worship Jesus. This is a clue that Jesus was the Messiah because one of the repeated prophecies was that the nations and kings would, in fact, come to the Messiah as the ruler of the world. For example, Isaiah 60.3, "And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising."
Verses 1 to 3:
"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.'"
The next clue that Jesus is the messiah is that he was born in Bethlehem. Verses 3 to 6:
"When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he enquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
"And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel."'"
That quotation is from Micah 5.2 and Matthew includes it here because it shows that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
So, Jesus was the Messiah. What did that mean, exactly?
Look back to Matthew 1.21 for the answer. The angel who appeared to Joseph said to him, "She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
Whether we realise it or not, our greatest need is for forgiveness from God. It's a bit like someone who has cancer needs a doctor, whether they realise it or not. We need forgiveness from God, because we have all treated him badly.
God created us to live in a relationship with him. He rightly deserves our worship and the number one place in our lives because he is God. Instead, the Bible says we have all turned away from him. We are like a son who says to his Father, 'I wish you were dead' and who grabs his inheritance but pushes away his Father. We make ourselves and what we want more important than God and what he wants. We don't even thank him – let alone live lives that honour him as he deserves.
Unless we receive forgiveness for the way we have treated God, we face the punishment of hell and death. The good news that we remember at Christmas is that Jesus came to save us from our sins by making it possible for us to be forgiven. That is what the Messiah came to do.
So, Matthew wants us to know that baby Jesus, born in Bethlehem, is the King of all Kings, the promised Messiah of ages past who has come to save his people from their sins.
What we see next are three types of people and their reactions to the news of the birth of Jesus.
2. Herod Hated Jesus
Herod was not a Jew but he was a very clever politician who had managed to convince the Romans to make him king over Galilee and Judea. To win the acceptance of the Jewish people he married the daughter of a Jewish High Priest and built the Jerusalem temple as a gift to the nation. Herod had worked hard to get himself to his position of power. He cheated, stole and lied to attain it and to keep hold of it. He murdered hundreds of people, including his own wife and kids.
When Herod heard about Jesus' birth from the wise men, we read in verse 3 that he was "troubled". Why? He was threatened by the possibility of a rival king - especially one that was "born" (rather than made) King of the Jews. Herod had been placed in charge of the area by the Roman authorities and asked to rule over the people there. He had been calling himself the king of the Jews but he knew that he wasn't born for that role; he wasn't even from Jerusalem himself. So you can imagine how he felt when the wise men asked him where they could find the one who was born king of the Jews.
He immediately got to work to get rid of such unwanted competition by gathering information from the wise men that would help him figure out the age of the child. Herod wasn't just a little worried that there was someone born as king of the Jews. He was furious! There was no way he was going to let anyone take his throne. You see, Herod had grown extremely attached to his throne and being in charge of Jerusalem. Not only did Herod not want to give up his throne, but he also didn't want to let anyone else rule over him.
Matthew wants us to recognise and welcome Jesus. Herod recognised Jesus but didn't welcome him – instead he tried to kill him. It is a vivid picture of the very sin that Jesus came to rescue us from. How did Herod react to Jesus? Herod hated Jesus.
3. The Religious Leaders were indifferent to Jesus
The chief priests were the guardians of the word of God. They were the trained theologians of the day. They knew exactly what the scriptures said about every subject. Their training was very thorough. Starting as early as five years old, they followed the most learned rabbis, until they were about 30 years old, when they would be recognised as rabbis in their own right and were qualified to train disciples.
Although these experts knew what Scripture said and were able to guide the Wise men to Bethlehem, they themselves did not bother to follow them to worship Jesus. Bethlehem is only about six miles from Jerusalem. That's about the distance from here to the Metrocentre or the airport. It might take around two hours to walk. Surely not too much effort to meet Messiahsiah! Yet, they did not bother. Which is staggering – considering how amazing the birth of Jesus was. You'd expect them to jump up and join the Wise men in their search. But they don't.
Later in Matthew's gospel, we see religious leaders like these opposing the adult Jesus, and in the end conspiring to put him to death. The most knowledgeable church people often include those who take Jesus for granted. It is a dangerous situation to be in. It is no less a sin than the outright hatred of Herod, for in the end, it leads to the same place. Where Herod failed to kill the baby Jesus, the chief priests succeeded. We may take pride in our knowledge of Jesus and the Bible - but what good is that if we do nothing with that knowledge.
Matthew wants us to recognise and welcome Jesus. The religious leaders recognised Jesus but did nothing to welcome him. The religious leaders were indifferent to Jesus.
4. The Wise men Worshipped Jesus
Who were the Wise men? We don't know much about them. Only Matthew includes them in his gospel so what we have here is all we know. We don't know where they came from except 'the east'. We don't know their names. We don't actually know how many there were. We don't even know exactly what they did.
What we do know, however, is that they travelled many miles over many months with expensive gifts expecting to find a king, and instead they found a baby in a manger! But, this doesn't stop them acknowledging who is before them. Read verses 9 to 11:
"After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh."
We read that they were full of joy. They got down on their knees and worshiped him, offering him their gifts. This would have taken some serious humbling – men who were used to receiving gifts themselves, bowing down to a baby! But once you know who Jesus is, worship is the only proper response. The fact is this baby was God himself come in the flesh to save his people from their sins. 'We have come to worship him', they had told King Herod – and that's exactly what they did.
And they were right to. Baby Jesus would not remain a baby for long. Soon he would be doing things that only God could do – healing the sick, raising the dead and teaching with the authority of the one who created the universe. The expensive gifts of gold and frankincense are fit for the King who is God. One of the ways myrrh is used was used to embalm the dead – did they realise how appropriate a gift that was for someone who would one day die on a cross so that our sin could be forgiven. The punishment that we should have received for the way we had treated God was given to him, so that if we accept him as our saviour we would receive the gift of forgiveness we so desperately need.
Matthew wants us to recognise and welcome Jesus and he makes quite an effort to make the point that those who did so were foreigners. It's quite striking that they are the ones whose example we are to follow - especially given Matthew was a Jew and was mainly writing to a mainly Jewish audience. He wants us to realise that anyone can come to Jesus. Matthew is pointing out to us here that when Jesus came he wasn't just coming for the religious people. He was coming for all peoples of all nations. And we should expect that even the most unlikely kinds of people can come to Jesus.
The wise men worshipped Jesus.
5. What About You?
Essentially there are only two possible attitudes to Jesus. You can respond to him either with love and devotion and worship him as your King or with contempt, hatred and rejection and refuse to accept him as your Saviour and King.
That image of Herod wanting to kill Jesus may seen far removed from the way you lead your life. But if you are not actively living your life for God than you are living it for yourself. What you are saying is 'what I want is more important than what God wants'. We naturally want to live life our own way, driven by our selfishness and what we like to do most. If you are doing this, then you are pushing God away.
Herod was told by the chief priests and teachers, exactly who Jesus was and what he came to do. So Herod knew all the information. Yet he refused to entertain the thought that anyone could rule his life.
Unlike Herod, you may not know much yet about Jesus. If so, a great thing to do would be to pick up a free gospel to read from the welcome desk at the back and then to come along to one of our Life Explored course starting soon and discuss this more with others.
Maybe when you have seen where all the evidence is pointing and recognise who Jesus is that you will be ready to say sorry for how you have treated God and allow Jesus to save you from your sin by trusting in his death in your behalf on the cross.
It may be that you have done that, but you now recognise that your love for Jesus has grown cold and half-hearted. As Jesus said to the church in Sardis, "you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up!" What matters is not how much you know about Jesus. What matters is what you do with what you know. So say sorry for your complacency and ask Jesus to help you. You don't need to try harder - you just need to recognise your need for help from the Holy Spirit to give you a fresh love and help you to worship him as he deserves. That is certainly how I have been challenged as I have looked at this passage.
Matthew wants us to know that baby Jesus, born in Bethlehem, is the King of all Kings, the promised Messiah of ages past who has come to save his people from their sins. But he doesn't just want us to know that - he wants us to respond to that awesome reality by bowing down before that same Jesus and worshipping him.