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Sermon Briefs: Matthew 2:1-12

The homilist using Matthew 2:1-12 can find much meaning in dealing with the attitudes and mission of all the characters involved--Herod, the Magi, and the Christ--as does Walter Russell Bowie in his sermon, "What the Herods Do Not Know."
Then there is the prospect of concentrating on lessons from the Magi, or Wise Men, in particular, as we see in sermons by John Jay Hughes, Proclaiming the Good News, and Paul Noren, The Quenchless Quest. Both are good examples of messages to challenge others to "follow a star" and to become new persons.
In our example Where Did Christmas Go? by David MacLennan, we see an excellent effort to capture the fleetingness of Christmas and inject it into everyday life in the weeks and months ahead. It is a challenge to us to let Christmas make a real difference in our lives.
Walter Russell Bowie preached on What The Herods Do Not Know, in 1937, from the text Matthew 2:1 and 2. Herod was an old, crafty, well-established king of Israel under the aegis of the world-wide Roman Empire. The wise men were probably from beyond the Tigris and Euphrates, worshippers of Zoroaster, a religion finding meaning in the struggle of light and darkness. They came to tell Herod that a star was a sign that one was to be born and be King of the Jews. Herod had three of his sons executed for challenging his power, had slain his own wife in jealousy, and had another rival strangled in a public bath. He craftily told the Magi to go and locate this child so he might worship him, meanwhile sending soldiers to kill every young child around. Joseph, nevertheless, was warned in a dream, and fled from Bethlehem with Mary and Jesus. There are three elements, typified in Herod, the Wise Men, and Jesus, that enter life always.
In Herod is seen worldly wisdom. He thinks by being practical and realistic; he can make the consequences of life to suit himself. He had the adroitness to please several Roman masters--dictators who hated each other--and he won every prize he coveted; yet, though many feared and obeyed him, none loved him. He had courage, power of leadership, and a dominant personality; but his great ambition and a desire for power were a negative factor, and he was jealous and resentful of anyone like Jesus coming with the power of the spirit, the power of purity, and the power of love.
History is replete with stories of other Herods, but their end is ultimate dishonor, for they forget that life has its long perspectives.
Over against the spirit of worldly wisdom seen in Herod is the spirit of the Magi, which sees great lights and follows them. It represents imagination. They could believe in what had not been proved, and follow signs which promised wonderful fulfillments. Only through such imagination does the race go forward. There is great meaning in life for those desiring and determined to find it, but the failure of many people in discovering it is lack of imagination. We are fenced in by precedents, and fear to launch out in new ventures. Charles Lamb observed that "lawyers were children once." Anyone can have the legalistic mind, believing only in what has been, not in what might be. We need a child's expectancy.
What do we find in this lesson, besides the worldly wisdom of Herod, which led to defeat, and the imagination of the Magi which brought them on a long journey? Their star led them to Bethlehem, where they found the power and emotion of God's love. Emotion has always played an important part of people's lives. We see it in great music and literature, like that of Shakespeare, and the greatest gift of Christianity is its power to kindle our emotions. This causes us to be less cruel and selfish, and more eager to be generous, understanding, compassionate and kind. Life begins to be redeemed and renewed only when love is born into it.1
Where Did Christmas Go? asks David A. MacLennan in a 1952 sermon on Matthew 2:12. After weeks of preparation and anticipation and a few days of enjoyment, we are suddenly back to earth, and where did Christmas go? The gospel writers Matthew and Luke tell us that the original Christmas actors--the Bethlehem shepherds--returned to the sheep-tending; but they returned "glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen." This should mean to us being grateful for life, friends, opportunities to be helpful, and prayer. The shepherds would never be the same--in their work or within themselves--and neither should we after Christmas. How we go is more important than where we go.
Where the wise men went when they "returned another way" is not as important as how they went back from Christmas. They went back wiser, because they had seen Jesus the divine reality and the Infinite drawing near, and now they would be alert for signs of his presence. They returned happier also with the lightness of heart every generous giver knows, a lesson in favor of good Christmas giving.
MacLennan then asks, "Where did the central Figure go?" Baby Jesus did not live happily ever after, for this is no fairy tale. He lived through years of toil and preparation, helping the family, then a short ministry, clashing with evil powers, arrest and crucifixion.
Where did Christmas go? Often into the attic, or storeroom, but the Christ of Christmas goes on living, that we may have life. Quoting John Masefield in The Trial of Jesus, the centurion said to Procula after the crucifixion, "He is let loose in the world, lady, where neither Roman nor Jew can stop His truth." He asks, "Where are you going from Bethlehem, and who is going with you?"2
In a sermon titled The Lessons of the Magi, John Jay Hughes preached in 1970 on Matthew 2:1-12. He says we do not know who these astrologers were, but we can learn from the story in its five stages. First, they did see. A farmer's flock of tame geese, looking down always for food, looked up one day at wild geese going south. They honked and flapped their wings, but did not fly away. Many people are attracted away from life's routine, and become aware of a higher call; but they fail to respond.
The wise men went out and searched. Friends mocked, no doubt, but they took courage, as it always takes courage for us to follow Christ. They also found. They possessed spiritual insight to hear and follow God regardless of the cost. They were overjoyed to see the star. In reality, however, God was seeking them, and he also seeks us. The Magi also worshipped. They recited no prayers, but offered the best they had. If we offer something costly, we will learn the joy of self-forgetfulness. They returned home, changed, touched by God. He is always with us. These steps are the story of the Christian life: The way to God and everlasting life.3
In a 1974 sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 called The Quenchless Quest, Paul H. A. Noren expresses how God has placed in our hearts a desire for something better and eternal. He opens with an old legend of a sea king who longed for human fellowship, and one day, hearing a cry, he rose from under the sea to find a lost child in a boat. However, a rescue party reached him first, and as they left, the sea king threw a little salt wave on the child's head, saying, "When he grows to manhood, the sea will call him, and he will come home to me at last." The story of the Wise Men is the account of man's quest for something more, something beyond.
The Wise Men were reaching for a world of mystery and wonder. Their science limited and filled with superstition, God revealed through their limited and imperfect knowledge. They were wise and wealthy men, but they were empty within, like many of us, having no goal in life. They sought a person, a king, for things are not enough. God seeks for us, from the question in the garden, "Where are you?," and such messages as Psalm 139, to the sign of the star. God ever reaches through the star for us.
The Wise Men also worshipped, or reverenced, Jesus, even though they may not have known the object of their search as they embarked. We fall down before our treasures and fail our destiny; they knelt before the child, offered their treasures, and fulfilled theirs. True worship of Christ is always costly.
Finally, they returned home: "...they departed to their own country by another way." They avoided Herod, and went back by a way of peace. They went back with a new concern and as new persons. It is a quenchless quest, because there is always more revelation for us in the future!4
A. F. McClung Richmond, Virginia
1. Walter Russell Bowie, Great Men of the Bible (Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York and London, 1937), pp. 151-163. 2. David Alexander MacLennan, Joyous Adventure (Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, 1952), pp. 64-71. 3. John Jay Hughes, Proclaiming the Good News (Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., Huntington, Indiana, 1970), pp. 39-42. 4. Paul H. A. Noren, Augsburg Sermons, Gospels, Series A (Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1974), pp. 55-58.