The Gift Only You Can Give
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.