Have You Been Changed By Christmas?

Have You Been Changed By Christmas?

Matthew 1:1

Dr. Jim Denison

Time magazine recently named SpaceShipOne the “Coolest Invention of 2004.” This is the privately built and operated aircraft that made world headlines when it traveled into space last October. Now its inventors are planning to be in the space-tourism business by 2007. All with a craft which fits in your two-car garage. Perhaps you cannot afford to give the $190,000 flight as a Christmas gift. But don’t despair. Here are other presents you might consider:

The “Bambino” is a newly-created watermelon about the size of a cantaloupe. It took ten years to breed, and is sweeter than its larger cousin. Think of it—a watermelon stocking stuffer.

The “Jawbone” is an electronic device which attaches to your cell phone. Its sensor picks up vibrations emitting from your head when you speak, making for clearer calls. At least that’s the theory.

You can now buy a television which becomes a mirror when it is turned off; a ski watch which contains a GPS tracker, barometer, altimeter, compass, and (also) a clock; and a motorized crib which rocks for a minute if the baby in it cries for 30 seconds.

How many would change your life? Well, the last one probably would. But how many of the Christmas gifts you receive this year will actually change your life in demonstrable ways?

Will Christmas? If it doesn’t, it wasn’t really Christmas. That’s my thesis today. Let’s see if I can prove it to you.

This year we’re sharing Christmas with Matthew. We’ll begin with a message on “The Gospel According to Matthew.” I’ve never preached a sermon on the title of a book before. But then you’ve probably not heard one, either. Here’s the story which makes the title a sermon. And here’s the important question I’ll ask when we’re done: is this your story?

Matthew before Jesus

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us how our subject came to follow Jesus. Let’s set out what they say:

“As Jesus went on from there [after healing the paralytic], he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him” (Matthew 9:9).

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him” (Mark 2:13-14).

“After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:27-28).

From these accounts we learn that Matthew had two names, both of them ironic. “Levi” was the priestly tribe of his nation. And “Matthew” meant “gift of God.” The people of his community would not have found the joke to be funny.

Matthew was a tax collector. In the ancient world, this profession was considered the most profane and immoral work a man could do.

Cicero listed as the two worst trades in the Roman Empire, a tax-collector and a lender (or banker) (De Officiis 1, 42). Lucian listed among those destined for hell the adulterers and tax-collectors (Menippus II).

And the Jews despised tax-collectors even more than did the Romans. These men were cheating traitors. Rome employed them to tax their own neighbors for the hated Empire, making them turncoats and traitors against their own people. Even worse, the government allowed them to demand as much taxation as they wished with the full support of the military, making them thieves.

Matthew could stop people anywhere, examined their possessions, and assessed whatever taxes he wished. If his victim could not pay what Matthew required, he could loan the money at an impossible rate of interest. It is no wonder that the New Testament ranks tax-collectors with gentiles (Matthew 18:17), harlots (Matthew 21.31-33), and sinners (Matthew 9:10-11; 11.19; Mark 2:15-16; Luke 5:30; 7:34; 15:1).

Matthew did his extortion in Capernaum, a fishing village on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum was Jesus’ headquarters when in Galilee, so Matthew must have heard him preach and teach often. The Holy Spirit was obviously at work in his heart and soul. And so when the great call came, he was ready.

Here’s the good news: if Christmas could change him, it can change us.

Matthew following Jesus

Of all the disciples, I think Matthew gave up the most initially to follow Jesus. Luke’s account says that he “got up, left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:28). What did he leave and lose?

He left his career. Positions such as Matthew held were so lucrative that they were difficult to acquire, and guarded zealously by those who held them. Once Matthew abandoned his post, he could have no hope of ever regaining it. Unlike Peter, James, and John, who easily returned to their fishing trade (John 21:3), Matthew had to leave his profession forever.

With his career he left his wealth. He may well have been the richest person in his city, as Zacchaeus the tax-collector probably was in his (Luke 19:8). But what money he took with him was put into the disciples’ common treasury (John 13:29), with no hope of making more. Matthew abandoned both his position and the wealth it brought him.

And he risked his security and even his life as well. Tax-collectors were despised by their fellow citizens, as we have seen. They were protected by the Roman militia so long as they served the Empire at their post, but were fair game for taunts and ridicule when they ventured into society. For instance, remember Zacchaeus’s treatment at the hands of the people of Jericho (Luke 19:3, 7). And if they abandoned their position entirely, they forsook any protection Rome might give to them.

By following Jesus, Matthew left his career, his possessions, and risked even his life. But he considered the Christ of Christmas to be worth all of that. When he met him, he found the forgiveness, love, purpose, and joy he had searched for all his life. And he left his old life behind forever.


The Gift Only You Can Give

The Gift Only You Can Give

Matthew 2:1-12

Dr. Jim Denison

In 1858 a scientific expedition passed through what we today call the Grand Canyon. A young lieutenant wrote in his report: “This region is altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the South, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. It shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.”

In 1863, when Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, a newspaper editor in Harrisburg wrote, “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”

Two thousand years ago a baby was born in a tiny town called Bethlehem. The next morning, anyone in the community would have agreed, “Nothing significant happened last night.” And yet the hinge of history is on the door of that Bethlehem stable. That one event changed the world forever. God became one of us, that we might become one with him.

So far in the Advent season we have found hope in the promise of heaven; peace in the fact that the Christ who changed Matthew can change us; joy in the knowledge that we are all welcome at the party; and love in obeying his perfect will as Joseph did.

We’ve shared Christmas with Matthew. Now let’s watch him end Christmas, and make the story our own. Yesterday we opened our Christmas presents. Now let’s give the Christ of Christmas his, today and until the first Christmas leads to the second. What does God want for Christmas this year? Why will the question matter to your soul all year long?

How did they find him?

Matthew alone tells us about the “Magi,” the Greek word for “wise men.” Let’s separate biblical facts from 20 centuries of tradition.

We typically put three wise men in our manger scenes, since they brought three kinds of gifts. But they usually traveled in groups of twelve or more for safety.

We have named them Melchior, an elderly man with a long, flowing beard; Casper, a young, clean-shaven man; and Balthasar, with a newly-grown, stubbly beard. But their names are found nowhere in Scripture.

Pilgrims claimed to have discovered their bones and relics in the fourth century. In 1162 they were supposedly moved to Cologne, Germany, where they are enshrined today. But no one really knows where they died and were buried.

In truth, the Magi were much more like us than any others in the Christmas story.

Like us, and unlike Mary and Joseph, they were Gentiles. They lived in Persia, the first foreigners invited to worship the Christ.

Like us, and unlike Mary and Joseph, they were people of means. In fact, they were so wealthy that they could afford to leave their homes for a journey lasting more than two years, and afford the finest gifts to give the Child.

Like us, and unlike the shepherds, they were well educated. In fact, they were the most learned people in their society–scholars in philosophy, medicine, and science.

Like us, and unlike the shepherds, they were religious men. In fact, they were leaders among the people of faith in ancient Persia, corresponding to the Levites in ancient Israel. No sacrifice could be made in their worship unless one of the Magi were present.

How did they know of the birth of the Christ?

The Jews had been enslaved in their country seven centuries earlier, and talked of a “Messiah” who would one day set all mankind free from sin and death.

That idea became even more popular in the years preceding Christmas. The Roman historian Suetonius wrote, “There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated for men coming from Judaea to rule the world.”

The Roman historian Tacitus said, “There was a firm persuasion that at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers coming from Judaea were to acquire universal empire.”

According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the Jews believed that “about that time one from their country should become governor of the inhabitable earth.”

The Jewish scriptures even told the Magi when the Messiah would come:

“A star will come out of Jacob, a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17).

And so, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:3).

“Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba [the Magi’s homeland] will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord” (v. 6).

So the scriptures foretold that a star would come to announce the birth of this Messiah and lead us to him. Then just such a star appeared before them, as we learned on Christmas Eve. The Scriptures said the King of the Jews would come; the scholars agreed; now the stars seemed to lend their assent. So the Wise Men set out on pilgrimage to find and worship him.

Why did they find him?

Their journey took longer than our manger scenes allow. Much longer, in fact.

To find the Christ, they had to travel for two years after his birth. This is why Matthew’s account says that they came to his “house,” not his manger, and found the “child,” not the “baby” (v. 11).

This is why murderous King Herod killed all the Jewish boys in the vicinity from two years old and under (v. 16).

They came first to Herod in Jerusalem, assuming he would know of the birth of the King of the Jews. He did not, but his scholars knew that the boy would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). And when they saw again the star which first announced his birth, leading them to his home, they were overjoyed (v. 10).

They brought him gifts prepared for just this moment.

Gold, for Persians never came before a king without it.


The Secret To Christmas Joy

The Secret to Christmas Joy

Matthew 1:1-17

Dr. Jim Denison

Christmas started me on the road to moral ruin. In first grade, our class was melting crayons into drawings of the Wise Men. I finished early and asked the teacher if I could do whatever I wanted. She said yes, so I melted a crayon into her hair. She quit teaching that year. Thus began a life of elementary school crime.

My second-grade teacher broke her paddle on my backside, and quit that year. My third-grade teacher suffered a nervous breakdown and quit. In the fourth grade I locked a girl in the coat closet during lunch; another day I knocked eraser dust into the window air conditioner, spraying the entire classroom. That teacher quit that year.

In the fifth grade I learned to make stink-bombs out of plastic pens (I’ll not share the secret, so others won’t follow my immoral example), but that teacher stayed on the job anyway. My sixth grade teacher quit that year. Perhaps there’s a pattern in the story. My long-suffering mother knew my teachers better than I did. I received Christmas presents each year only by grace.

Today we’ll look at those Jesus invited to his birthday. We’ll learn that we’re each invited by grace, no matter what our elementary school teachers thought of us. And we’ll learn why that fact matters so very much in this, the Advent week of joy.

From Abraham to David

Verse 1: “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Why did Matthew begin in such a boring way? Because this subject was absolutely crucial to his purpose. He is writing to convince the Jews that Jesus is their Messiah. But the Messiah must come from the racial line of Abraham and the royal line of David, much as a candidate for President of the United States must be a natural-born citizen of our country. If Matthew cannot demonstrate these twin facts about Jesus, his work is done before it begins. His genealogy back to Abraham and David proves the case for Jesus’ Messiahship.

Now, remember that Jesus was the only baby who chose his ancestors. And he chose these 38 people. Let’s learn something about them, and ask why they’re here.

Jesus chose Isaac rather than Ishmael, though his mother was 90 years of age when he was born. Jesus’ own birth was not the first miraculous conception in his family line.

He chose Jacob (which means “deceiver”) rather than Esau, though the former lived up to his name most of his life. He would not be the last deceiver included by Jesus in his disciples and family.

He chose Judah rather than another of Jacob’s 12 sons. He could have chosen the godly Joseph, for instance. Any of the others were men of greater integrity than Judah.

Here’s how we know: “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar” (v. 3a). Tamar was married to Judah’s first son, but he died; then to his second son, but he died as well. Judah refused to give her his third son, so she pretended to be a prostitute, slept with her father-in-law, and bore him Perez and Zerah. Jesus chose a family line which included the worst kind of immorality. But Judah was not the last person of questionable character to be included in his family.

God redeemed Judah’s sin in amazing ways.

Despite his incestuous beginnings, Perez was blessed greatly by God (cf. Ruth 4:12). His descendants would become military heroes and political leaders (1 Chronicles 27:2-3; Nehemiah 11:6; 1 Esdras 5:5 [Apocrypha]). God can always hit straight licks with crooked sticks.

Hezron was the ancestor of two of the greatest clans in Judah (1 Chronicles 2:18-24, 25-33).

Ram was not Hezron’s first son, but his second (1 Chronicles 2:9). We don’t know why God chose him specifically, though his name means “exalted.” The Lord has plans for us which only he knows.

Amminadab was the father-in-law of Aaron, the first high priest. And so Jesus is descended from the priestly line, as well as the royal.

Nahshon was one of the most prominent leaders in Jewish history, known as the “leader of the people of Judah” (1 Chronicles 2:10).

His son Salmon, on the other hand, married the pagan prostitute Rahab. Straight licks with crooked sticks, indeed. And with remarkable results.

Their son Boaz was one of the most honored people in Jewish history. And one of the most famous, for his romance and marriage to Ruth, the Moabite foreigner. No one would have included her in their family but God.

Their son was Obed, which probably means “worshipper.” His son was Jesse, a resident of Bethlehem and father of eight boys. The last would become the greatest king in Jewish history.

Jesus chose some of the holiest people in Hebrew history for his ancestors, but also some of the most corrupt. Why?

From David to Babylon

The moral disease in his family tree is most evident in what comes next: David’s son was Solomon, “whose mother had been Uriah’s wife” (v. 6b).

The story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba was so loathsome that Matthew could not bring himself to call her by name, but he made sure we know that she was Uriah’s wife before she was the king’s.

But as another example of God’s redemptive ability, their son Solomon became the wisest man of all time (1 Kings 3:12). Tragically, he was not the most moral. His 700 wives and 300 concubines led him into paganism and immorality. The result was a downward slide into captivity and near oblivion for the people of God.

Now the list bounces back and forth from morality to immorality, as the nation catapults into captivity.

Rehoboam refused the wisdom of his elders; his egotism split the nation permanently into the 10 northern tribes (“Israel”) and the two southern tribes (“Judah”). Jesus’ genealogy follows the southern kings from this point forward.


The Secret To Christmas Love

The Secret to Christmas Love

Matthew 1:18-25

Dr. Jim Denison

My father grew up on a farm in Kansas, where mechanics were harder to find than cornerbacks for the Cowboys. As he explained it, if you’re harvesting a wheat field and the tractor breaks down, you can either fix it yourself or walk a long ways home and lose the crop. He learned to fix anything.

I, on the other hand, was mechanically challenged. I didn’t know a socket wrench from a pizza. But my father was determined to change all that, so we worked on a 1966 Ford Mustang together. I would hold the light and he would do the work. Then I graduated to tool hander. Then to bolt turner. I still remember the day my father let me change the fan belts myself. But I had to do what he said, or all was lost.

I learned to obey to know. If I waited until I understood why he said to do something, I would never do it. If I did what he said, I would later understand why.

Hold that thought, as we meet my Christmas hero and learn to make his story ours.

From joy to tragedy

Joseph is the silent Christmas actor. In all the Bible, he never speaks a word. And in the rest of our faith tradition, he is seldom considered. The Baptist hymnal mentions him but once.

In the movie called Christmas Joseph is an extra, a character actor with minor credits. When we put up our nativity sets, he is usually the last figure we set out. If we lost his statue, we would set up our nativity scenes just the same. He is Joseph the Silent.

But he’s my Christmas hero. I think Joseph has the hardest part in the story. Here’s why.

As the movie begins, Joseph is doing well.

He is part of a family famous for its faith. A century earlier, his ancestors moved to Galilee to help evangelize the area. He is the descendent of missionaries, like a son of Lottie Moon or William Carey today.

Even better, he is a “son of David,” a descendant of the greatest king in Jewish history. In fact, he’s the only person in the Bible to be called “son of David” except Jesus. Joseph is royalty.

And successful. His work as a carpenter is honorable and respected; in fact, according to early tradition, he was known for making the best ox-yokes in the country.

Now his years of hard work are about to be rewarded. As was the custom of his day, he had arranged years earlier to marry the daughter of a family in their village, a young girl named Mary. Now she is ready for marriage. Their home is finished, most of it built by Joseph himself. Their year of engagement is nearing its end. All is ready.

Then comes the tragedy: his fiancée is pregnant.

Joseph has kept himself sexually pure all these years, and of course expected Mary to do the same. He is shocked beyond words, but facts don’t lie. His engaged wife, his love, is pregnant. And Joseph knows that he is not the father.

Now he has the decision of his life to make. He is “just” and “righteous” (Matthew 1:19), terms which mean “one who keeps the law.” And so he cannot marry Mary. Even if he wanted to put this shame and betrayal aside, he could not do so legally. The rabbis forbade it. She has committed adultery, and their marriage can be no more.

This fact leaves Joseph with two options.

He can divorce Mary publicly before her family and the entire town. (Deuteronomy 22:13-21; Leviticus 20:10).

Or he can divorce her privately. With just two witnesses, Joseph can go to her house and declare their marriage ended, then pay the fine to the priest and be done with her (Mishnah, Sotah 1.1.5 [Talmud]).

The word of the Lord gives this righteous man no other options. Or so he thinks.

Dreams that ended his

Joseph has decided to divorce Mary privately, as the kindest option for her. Now it is the night before he will go to her home and end their future together. And then, in his dreams, an angel of the Lord appears to him.

We are too familiar with the story. Try to read it as though you were Joseph. Have you ever heard an angel speak directly to you? Imagine the awe, the holiness, the glory of it. The angel’s appearance alone is a miracle. But his announcement is even more stunning.

The angel tells Joseph that Mary’s child has been “conceived by the Holy Spirit.” Who has ever heard of such a thing? Not once in all the Bible has God ever done anything like it. The Virgin Birth is basic theology to us, but it is a shocking idea to the village carpenter that night. How would you feel if your fiancée or daughter told you that she had become pregnant “by the Holy Spirit?” Would you believe her?

What can Joseph do? He can believe the angel and complete the marriage, raise this child that is not his, and perhaps live the rest of his life in confusion and doubt about it all. Or he can refuse. Who would believe him, anyway? People can count to nine months–they will know that Mary was with child before they were legally and morally united. They will assume that Joseph had been an immoral lawbreaker. They will shun him or worse.

It would be far easier to refuse this strange dream. Joseph has done nothing to deserve this dilemma, this turmoil, this decision. Why him?

He makes his decision, a choice which will end forever his own dreams for his life and future. He will obey the word of God. He will stake his life, his marriage, and his future on it. He will do what God says before he understands why God says it. He will obey before he knows.


The Stars Of Christmas

The Stars of Christmas

Matthew 2:1-2

Dr. Jim Denison

Have you heard of Honus Wagner? If you find one of his baseball cards, you’ll be glad to know what you’re about to learn: only seven remain in existence, and are worth half a million dollars apiece. All that for a piece of cardboard.

A Philadelphia man bought a painting at a local flea market for $4. When he examined it at home, he found at its back a copy of the Declaration of Independence, printed on July 4, 1776. It was estimated to be worth more than $1 million. People had passed it by all day long, but none recognized its value.

Franklin Roosevelt and one of his friends were talking late into the night at the White House. At last the president suggested that they go out into the Rose Garden and look at the stars before going to bed. They stared for several minutes into the nebulae with its thousands of stars. Then the president said, “All right, I think we feel small enough now to go in and go to sleep.”

From time immemorial, the stars have drawn us toward heaven, but never more effectively than when a single star led a group of men to worship a Child twenty centuries ago. Unfortunately, most of the world passed it by, even as much of the world still passes by the Child whose birth it announced.

On this Christmas Eve, we’ll think together about the Christmas star in the sky, and the even brighter Christmas star in the stable. And we’ll learn to be Wise Men who follow the first to the second today.

What do we know?

First, let’s understand the setting. The “Magi” were a group of ancient star-gazers or astrologers, probably working for the king of their nation. They were “wise men,” spiritual and philosophical advisers, basing their wisdom on their reading of the skies. This story of their coming to worship a new king based on a star is entirely plausible–they did this sort of thing frequently.

Now, what does God’s word tell us about the object of their star-gazing exploration?

First, the account is told in historic fashion. Nothing here suggests that the star is a myth or poem. From the earliest times, the church has taken this text as the description of an event in history.

Second, the star rose en anatole, “in the east.” This was the ancient term for an “acronical” rising, when an object rises at sunset and is visible all night.

Third, this event was not so spectacular as to elicit wide attention. Herod and his court advisers missed it, as did other ancient historians and records.

Fourth, there is no indication in the text that the star actually led the Magi to Jerusalem. When they saw it, they knew somehow that the star meant the birth of a king, and that they should go to Jerusalem to find him. But nothing in Matthew’s account says that the star actually led the Wise Men to King Herod.

Until now the star of Christmas would be interesting, but explainable in normal terms–a star rises on the horizon, somehow indicating to ancient star-gazers the birth of a new king in Israel. But now the star goes from natural to supernatural: “the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him” (vs. 9-11).

A star appears in the eastern sky, telling a group of Magi that a King of the Jews has been born. It then reappears and guides them to his house and worship. These are the facts as we have them in Scripture.

What can we guess?

Now, what could this star have been? Every plausible explanation has been advanced, all of them interesting but none so compelling as to end the debate. Let’s look briefly at some of the more popular options.

A comet has long been a popular candidate. But there are none recorded around the time of Jesus’ birth. Halley’s Comet would be the closest, appearing in 12 B.C., but that is years before Christmas. And comets were considered to be ominous in the ancient world, never the herald of good news.

Meteors and fireballs are sometimes suggested. But Herod and his court would certainly have noticed such a brilliant phenomenon.

A natural star could account for the first appearance, but not the second. If a star got so close to our planet as to point out a particular house in the town of Bethlehem, it would burn us all up. Imagine our sun getting so close to us.

Some suggest a combination of planets. On September 11 in 3 B.C., Jupiter (the royal planet) came into conjunction with Regulus (the royal star) in Leo (the constellation of kings). The sun was in the constellation of Virgo (symbolic of the virgin), together with the new moon (symbolic of a new birth). And September 11 was the beginning of the Jewish New Year as well. Interesting, but not even a planet could single out an individual house with precision.

What does it mean?

The only explanation which fits the facts is that this was a one-time, miraculous phenomenon. God used a star to alert the Wise Men to the birth of a new king in Israel. Somehow he used that same star to guide them to the Child’s home. And when they found him, they gave him their hearts and gifts in worship. And found the hope, peace, joy, and love he alone can give. The star in the sky led them to the Star on earth.

Now, what if none of it were true? Several years ago, a group of historians asked themselves some interesting questions. What if Lee had not lost at Gettysburg? What if Booth had missed Lincoln? What if Napoleon had escaped to America? And so on. They wrote a book about their discussion titled, If: History Rewritten. Let’s ask their question tonight. What if there were no star in the heavens because there were no star on earth?