Matthew 2:1-12, 16-18
Christmas Eve, 2005
In recent weeks, we’ve looked at the way the Gospel writers began telling the story of Jesus. Mark, you may remember, started with the story of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness. Luke started with the story of John’s father, Zechariah. He was a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem who was visited by the angel Gabriel, who told him that he and his wife Elizabeth were going to have a baby.
This evening, on Christmas Eve, we get to see how Matthew begins the story. And I want us to see that he doesn’t start the story in the way we might expect.
If we started reading at chapter one, verse one, we would get into what I would call some background information. For the first 17 verses we would read this long genealogy of Jesus – similar to the one in Luke. Then we find just a bit of the story about Joseph’s dream, where the angel tells Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. Even that seems like background. It sets up the beginning of the real narrative, the real beginning of the story, which is in Chapter two.
At the beginning of that chapter this begins to read like a story. “Now when 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 is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him.’”
Again I want you to understand how unexpected that is! When Matthew really gets rolling with this story, he pretty much starts with the story of these wise men, these magi, these visitors from another land, another culture, another religion. And that is amazing considering the point of view from which Matthew is writing!
Each Gospel writer had a little different angle on the story, a little different purpose to their writing, And it’s been said that Matthew wrote his gospel with the intention of convincing the Jewish people that Jesus is indeed the Messiah as predicted in their scriptures – our Old Testament. It’s in Matthew’s gospel, more than all the others, that we read over and over again, “thus and so happened so that the words of the prophet would be fulfilled…” which is usually followed by the quote of the prophecy. We have one such example in the first chapter, verses 22 and 23. “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet.” Then the prophet’s words, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”
So think about this. Here is Matthew, a Jewish writer, writing to the Jewish people about their Messiah. And the Jews were a people who were very exclusive about their faith. They were very proud of the fact that they were the chosen people. And they were very exclusionary about it – especially when it came to foreigners! (They wore “Chosen People” T-shirts!) Yet, here is Matthew beginning his story of Jesus by telling of these strangers from the East who came to worship this “King of the Jews.” If that doesn’t seem odd to you, it should!
So why this story? Why tell about these men? Why tell this part of it to the Jewish people? The other Gospel writers don’t include this story. Why did Matthew? I don’t know that we can answer that question for certain, but I believe that part of the reason is that Matthew saw this event that we celebrate tonight, as one of great change. That’s why I’ve chosen to call this sermon, “The Night that Changed the World.” This is the point in history in which the God of all creation chose to step into history and become one like us. And nothing would be the same again.
I believe one of the things we get from Matthew’s account, perhaps better than the others, is the scope of this event we celebrate. I believe Matthew understood the importance of this event, and he was trying to tell his own people. Yes, this is the Messiah, but this baby and these foreigners meant that it was not just about one group of people any more! He understood that things were changing on an eternal scale. This was not just a nice story about the birth of a baby! And I don’t think we can see it that way, either – especially when we see that parts of this story are not so nice!
Matthew was also the only writer who chose to tell how this event impacted world leaders at the time. Tonight we read the last part of this story, as well. That’s the part we tend to “skip over” because it’s not so “nice.” That’s the part where King Herod felt like the wise men had tricked him when they “returned to their country by another way.” Actually they “out tricked” him, since we know his statement that “they were to bring him word, so that he come and worship the newborn king, too” was just a ruse! We know his real intention! History tells us that Herod was very jealous about his power, and he was known to put members of his own family to death if he perceived them as a threat! It was a common saying at the time that it was “better to be Herod’s dog than his son.”
So having been out-tricked by the wise men, Herod flew into a rage and gave orders that all male children in that region be eliminated. That was what he thought he had to do to eliminate this “newborn king.”
It’s hard to know what to say about such things. It doesn’t make sense to us. For some reason we can’t fathom, major milestones in history have often been associated with great tragedy. And that’s true even in the Bible. Think about the story of Moses, how Pharaoh ordered just such an execution of the innocent. At the very least, such tragedies can give us a better idea of the seriousness of what we’re dealing with. And since the coming of Jesus was a turning point in history, since it affected such things as life, death, and life eternal, it might be said that events of equally tragic proportions could almost be expected.
Who knows?! But I believe we need to read this story – no matter how hard it might be! Matthew would not want us to shy away from it. Even though we can’t understand it, it does show us the importance – the serious nature of this event. It shows us that Christmas is so much more than just trees and reindeer and family dinners – nice as those things are. It is a turning point in history. It is a time when the world changed – literally overnight. Christ came to earth, and the earth would never be the same again!
I believe Matthew wanted his readers to see the scale of this event. And he wanted them to see the scope of this event, too. It was cataclysmic in scale, and it was far reaching in scope. To the Hebrews it may have been simply (or not so simply) that they had to accept that their exclusive hold on the title of “God’s chosen people” might now be a thing of the past. That would be a huge change right there. But even more, for these men from another religion to have seen signs of this event in Israel gives us hints of a greater world and its readiness for this Child. And there were other examples in other religions as well.
Even more, though, Matthew wanted his readers to see the power of this story. We who know this story, also know the outcome! We know that this Herod who fought so ruthlessly against the coming of this “King,” this jealous leader who tried to eliminate the threat to his power, could not possibly prevail. Jesus would prevail, this baby would prevail – even over the mighty Roman Empire!
It would take hundreds of years. And during those years, Rome would fight against Christianity in brutal ways. But eventually, Christianity would prevail. This fight begun by Herod would be a losing battle, when 300 years later, Emperor Constantine would declare Christianity as the official religion of the empire.
Now I know there are some who consider Constantine’s declaration as a “political move.” Maybe it was. They say that becoming the “Official Religion” had some detrimental affects on the Church. Maybe it had. But those things aside, I like Constantine. And I like to think of his elevation of Christianity as being the final victory of Christ over Rome. Because that’s the scope of this event, that’s the power that was at work, even in the story of this baby!
Yes, the Church has taken some dubious actions over the years, after all, it’s full of flawed people. But over all, those things have not been what the Church has been about. It’s been about God being a part of the lives of his people. That’s why he came. (And nothing can prevail against that!) That’s why this night we now celebrate was the night the world changed. May it be that this is the night our lives changed, as well.
This is a big story! It’s a far reaching story! It’s powerful story, through which the world would never be the same again. It’s our story, too. Through this event, through Christ coming to this world, may our lives never be the same, either.
Eternal God, we can’t begin to understand it all, but you chose to come into our world, the world you created. Help us to see this event for what it is. Forgive us for the ways we sometimes trivialize it. Help us to see it as the turning point in history that it is. And may the Christ child come into our lives in new ways. For this we pray in his name, Amen.