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Dec 9 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

December 8, 2019


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.” 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 inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophets:
‘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.'”
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 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 worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.
Matthew 2:1-11

Intro: I was young and foolish the first time I visited Bethlehem

I was not prepared for the Church of the Nativity
– an ancient cathedral built over a cave
• the guide told us this was the shelter where Jesus was born
– a large icon screen stood behind the altar reaching almost to the top of the vaulted ceiling
• brass candle-holders and incense censers hung between the pillars
• an assortment of meaningful symbols dangled from the ceiling,
◦ including bulbs that looked like gigantic Christmas tree ornaments
– you see, this is what we do
• we decorate Christmas with symbols that are meaningful to us
• for instance, we have painted the magi into a warm and cozy scene
◦ in reality, the mood Matthew describes was tense and dangerous
◦ and in spite of the danger, the magi found Jesus and worshiped him

This is the second Sunday of Advent
– and this morning we light the “Bethlehem candle”
• different meanings have been attached to it
• you and I might as well attach our own meanings
– for me, this year, the candle represents the light that led the magi to Jesus,
• and the faith that enabled them to persevere until they found him

In the movie, “Jesus of Nazareth,” Peter Ustinov played Herod the Great

He was an excellent choice! I remember him fuming,
“King of the Jews? King of the Jews? I am the king of the Jews!”
– we know from history that “When Herod ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”
• Matthew handles this rather delicately,
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled and all Jerusalem with him
• Herod consulted the biblical experts
◦ where did the prophets say the Messiah was to be born?
◦ they answered, “Bethlehem,” and supplied a quote from Micah
– so at this point in the story, who all knows where to look for Messiah?
• the chief priests and scribes, King Herod, and now the magi
◦ but of the three, only the magi go off to find him
• this is the first lesson I learn about the faith of the magi:

It belongs not to the person who knows,
but to the person that goes

Many books have been written on what Christians believe
– and arguments over our beliefs have raged for 2,000 years
• but beliefs do not necessarily bring us to faith
– beliefs are static–that is, they do not live, change, or evolve
• we can pick up new beliefs or throw out old beliefs, but they stay the same
◦ they can be discussed, analyzed, defined, and repeated
◦ they can branch out, but they don’t reproduce
• James points out the limits of belief with a measure of sarcasm,
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder! (Jas. 2:19)

Faith, on the other hand, is dynamic – it moves, grows, and changes
Helmut Thielicke, “. . . faith does not consist in ‘believing something is true’ . . . . It consists in a struggle, a conversation with God.”
– I am convinced that you have to struggle with faith to make it your own
• beliefs that have been handed down to us belonged to someone else
• faith, however, can only belong to us

Faith is a journey or quest – like that of the magi

Faith moves toward what it believes
– and once faith begins to move, it sets other things in motion
• faith makes other things happen
• the magi’s journey of faith was not an easy one
T. S. Eliot imagined their journey in poetry
One of the magi narrates:

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelter,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
(T. S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi” — first stanza)

– but I do not believe our journey is much easier
• for them, Bethlehem was hundreds of miles
◦ for us it is thousands of miles
◦ and even more, it’s thousands of years away
• we have to travel the distance of credibility
Helmut Thielicke, “Are we to entrust ourselves and our questions about life to a man who road a donkey in a legendary far-off time in a [distant] corner of the world?”
◦ of course, the answer is yes
◦ only Jesus did much more than just ride a donkey

On Wednesday night, our Lexio Divina meditation was John the Baptist’s question to Jesus, Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another? John had struggles of his own when it came to placing his faith in Jesus. Perhaps he expected a Messiah who would drive Rome out of Israel, restore the ancient dynasty of David, and establish Jerusalem as the super power and political center of the world, bringing peace to God’s people and all the nations.
Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples was, “Just go back and tell him what you’ve seen”
– then he added a caption to the picture they would paint for John
And blessed is the one who is not offended by me (Lk. 7:23)
• to be offended is to be “stumbled,” “put off,” or “disappointed”
– Jesus was saying,
“This is who I am. These are the things I do. The blessing I bring is for the one who will accept me without disappoint me, but take me for who I am”
– this is the struggle of faith — we are at times struggling with Jesus

Faith is what links us to God

There is a verse of Hebrew Scripture at heart of Paul’s theology
– it is a statement about Abraham
And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6)
• again, righteousness means right-in-relation to the other person
• faith in God is what makes a person right with God
◦ all through the Scriptures, God is saying, “Trust Me”
– some students are good at taking tests
• but there’s one test no one enjoys taking
◦ it’s what James called the testing of your faith (Ugh!)
. . . for you know that the testing of you faith produces steadfastness (Jas. 1:3)
◦ Peter says the genuineness of our faith is tested because it’s
more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire (1 Pe. 1:7)

Jesus tested the faith of his disciples more than once
– and when it broke down, he called them on it
• when he calmed a storm at sea,
Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith? (Mk. 4:40)
• when they asked why there were unable to cast out a demon
Because of your little faith (Mt. 17:20)
– God doesn’t test our faith in order to break us
• to show us that we’re hypocrites, that we didn’t make the cut
• if school tests merely reveal what students don’t know,
◦ they’re worthless
◦ if they’re tools to help us learn, they’re invaluable
God’s purpose is to deepen, strengthen, and increase our faith

Conclusion: In our list of Christmas preparations,

Do we need to include a trip to Bethlehem?
– Can’t we just say,
“I have all these other things to get done.
And I still have presents to buy,
cards to address, dinners to attend.
And I know all that stuff about Bethlehem already.
Is it all that important that I think about it–again? ”
– Yes, it is, because there is where our faith was born

Faith can come to people in different ways
– sometimes it comes spontaneously, as in crisis when people cry out for God
• or it comes naturally, in times of desperation
◦ as when parents will try anything to save the life of their child
– sometimes it comes as the last or only solution to a problem
• many people have to be talked into surgery
◦ or driven to it by pain
◦ “I don’t trust doctors” or “I don’t trust hospitals”
• but one day they have to go, because there is no other hope

Our day to day faith in Jesus, the faith we live by, Paul says
comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ (Ro. 10:17)
• hearing again, we create a path for faith in our brains
Andrew Newberg and Mark Walden, in How God Changes Your Brain, tell us, “When you intensely meditate on a specific goal over an extended period of time, your brain begins to relate to your idea as if it were an actual object in the world by increasing activity in the thalamus, part of the reality-making process of the brain. The concept begins to feel more obtainable and real.”
• what is the goal we’re stretching for here?
◦ to build ourselves up in our faith
But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God (Jude 20)

This week there will be plenty of reminders of Jesus’ birth
– slow down, press the pause button on your day, and think
• not your typical busy brain thoughts
• but quiet reflective thoughts

The sort of thought that is rooted in awareness
and gives you new eyes to see,
and opens you up to the touch of Jesus
Be with Jesus in that present moment
in such a way that you allow yourself to be changed

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