“A Land of Hope and Fear”
Preached by Dr. Robert F. Browning, Pastor
Calvary Baptist Church
January 19, 2020
This morning our attention is drawn to one of the most important stories unique to the gospel of Matthew. It is not found anywhere else in the New Testament.
Why was the visit of the Wise Men to the baby Jesus important to those who assembled this book from Matthew’s recollections of the life and ministry of Jesus? What convinced them to include the details of this visit?
This story dramatically describes the world into which Jesus was born. It was a land of hope and fear.
It was hope that compelled the Wise Men to travel a great distance to discover where God was at work in the world and to pay homage to Jesus as one who would accurately reflect the heart and nature of God.
At the same time, fear gripped all of Jerusalem when they learned Herod was furious over hearing from the Wise Men that a new king had been born. They knew what Herod was capable of doing when he was angry, and it always included violence, bloodshed and unspeakable grief.
This was the world Jesus was born into, a land of hope and fear, a place where people dreamed grand and noble dreams but far too often had to go to the cemetery of broken dreams to bury them.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it.
How often have your hopes been interrupted and dashed by your fears? I suspect you have lost count.
Is there a person listening to my voice today who does not vacillate between hope and fear? I doubt it.
Ponder this as we work our way through this passage to see what it says to us about living with mixed emotions.
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (2:1-2)
Matthew was steeped in Jewish history. He had studied the prophets and pondered the meaning of their ancient words. He is careful to point out the approximate time and place of Jesus’ birth.
It was in Bethlehem sometime near the end of the reign of King Herod. Herod governed this region over forty years and died around 4 BC. This meant Jesus was probably born a couple of years prior to this, around 6 BC.
He was born in Bethlehem, just as Micah had predicted. Bethlehem, a fertile land six miles south of Jerusalem, was the place Jacob’s wife, Rachel, was buried and became Ruth’s home after she married Boaz. It was also home to a shepherd boy named David, who became the greatest king of Israel.
Make no mistake, Matthew closely connects Jesus’ birth to Jewish history, heritage, tradition and prophecy. He was writing to a Jewish audience, hoping to convince them Jesus was God’s anointed, the long awaited Messiah.
However, in his gospel the first visitors to show up to see Jesus are foreigners. In all likelihood, they were from Persia, modern day Iran. They were considered wise men because they were advisors to the king and were skilled in philosophy, medicine, natural science and astrology.
From Matthew’s perspective, they were also wise because they were on a search for truth and were willing to get out of their comfort zone and to travel great lengths to discover it. They wanted to discover where God was at work in the world so they could join in and tell others about it.
“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
They had far more questions than answers when they started on this pilgrimage, though. To their credit, they did not wait until all their questions were answered before beginning this important journey of faith. They followed their hearts, hoping each step would take them closer to the truth and a better way of living.
Wise people have a holy curiosity. They are more concerned about asking questions on their search for truth than impressing others with what they know. Their hearts and minds are always open and receptive.
They have no time for indoctrination but value the exploration of the mysteries of life and faith. They are always looking for the ‘God beyond their god,’ which means every answer they discover on their faith journey becomes the catalyst for new questions.
Wise people refuse to wait until all their questions have been answered before beginning this spiritual journey. Like the Wise Men, their faith compels them to move out of their comfort zone of familiarity and certainty to seek what God is doing so they, too, can participate in it and tell others about it.
Wise people don’t travel alone, either. They find others who are eager to learn and grow so they can ponder the mysteries of life together.
They become good listeners who suspend their understanding of truth in order to hear what others have learned from their study, experiences and struggles. They don’t worry that others may be farther along on their journey or have a deeper understanding of faith. They begin where they are and seek to grow toward Christ-likeness.
“When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written’:
“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” ”(Micah 5:2)
Who was Herod? As I referenced earlier, he governed Judea over forty years. Like all leaders, he was a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly.
He was capable of being compassionate and generous. During the famine of 25 BC, Herod had his personal stockpile of gold melted and sold in order to buy grain for his starving citizens.
Kind and benevolent deeds were far and few between, though. He was known more as a selfish, greedy, power-hungry and paranoid leader who tolerated no dissension or rivals. His viscous, vindictive and brutal style of leadership spread fear and despair throughout the land.
He had every rival to the throne killed, including one of his wives, a mother-in-law and three sons. When he realized later in our story the Wise Men were not going to return to tell him where Jesus was, he ordered the slaughter of every male child two years old or younger. It has even been reported as he neared death in 4 BC, he demanded the most revered leaders in Jerusalem be killed the day he died so there would be weeping and wailing in the streets of Jerusalem instead of celebratory sounds of joy.
Now you understand why Matthew reported all of Jerusalem was disturbed when Herod received word from the Magi that a new king had been born. They had good reason to be.
I wonder who becomes frightened and alarmed every time you are upset. Who is disturbed when you are? What are family members, friends or fellow employees doing to humor, appease and placate you?
What kind of havoc does your temper create? How many emotional and physical scars are you responsible for among those who must interact with you? How do you justify your immature, insensitive, irresponsible, incorrigible and despicable behavior?
Are you going to die like Herod, bombastic and bitter to the very end? You don’t have to, and I pray you don’t. This is no way to live and certainly no way to die.
“Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’ ” (2:7-8)
How do you know if someone is deceiving you? I think you have to observe their life.
In your dealings with this person, do you find them to be honest, trustworthy, reliable, dependable, fair and just? Do they keep their promises? Do they follow through on commitments? Do they admit their mistakes and make amends for them?
How do they treat others, especially those closest to them? Are they respectful and helpful? Are they compassionate and generous? Are their expectations of others reasonable or out of line? Do they motivate people or manipulate them? Do they bring the best out in others or continually beat them down with criticism?
What do others say about them? What has their experience been? Do they trust them and look forward to being with them and working alongside them? What advice do they have for you?
It is obvious Herod could not be trusted. What about you?
“After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. (2:9-10)
It had been a long journey for the Magi, but it was not in vain. The star led them to the very place where Jesus was, along with his parents.
They were overjoyed, Matthew told his readers. What a contrast to the reaction of Herod.
In Matthew’s gospel, joy is connected to two things: discovering where God is at work in the world and participating in it; learning something new on this journey of faith. The beauty of this is that every person who seeks wisdom and guidance from God can experience this indescribable joy.
I hope this includes you.
“On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” (2:11)
They brought gifts to Jesus, didn’t they? This tells me how confident they were their search would not be in vain. In their heart of hearts, they believed this long and unpredictable journey would lead them closer to God and renew their hope for all mankind.
It appears their gifts were both helpful and symbolic. I assume the gold came in handy when Joseph and Mary had to flee their homeland and take refuge in Egypt. It kept them from becoming destitute.
But there was much symbolism wrapped up in these presents, too.
Gold, a symbol for purity and virtue, indicated the kind of leader Jesus would be.
Frankincense, a sweet smelling oil used by priests in worship, indicated Jesus would be a man of prayer who relied upon God to lead and guide him as the very Wise Men who visited him did.
Myrrh, a bitter smelling oil, indicated Jesus would be a servant leader who would make sacrifices and even suffer on behalf of others to make their lives and our world better.
Three gifts. Three noble and lofty goals for Jesus to ponder and achieve.
How often did Jesus recall the story of the Wise Men that he learned from his parents? How many times did he and his mother, Mary, talk about the symbolism of these gifts as they discussed their own spiritual journeys?
What encounters, conversations and gifts have informed and influenced your spiritual formation? Who has helped to shape you into the person you are today? Do you think they are pleased with the progress you are making and the person you are becoming?
“And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” (2:12)
This is one of the most important parts of the story for me. It contains a painful reminder that we live in a land of hope and fear.
The God who led these foreigners to Jesus now led them to return home by a different route. Herod could not be trusted, and they did not need to go back to Jerusalem to tell him of this divine encounter they had experienced.
Thank goodness they let God lead them away from Bethlehem just as God led them there. How different the world would be had this not occurred.
Are you living in a place of hope or fear this morning? What or who is the source of your fear? What do you need to do to move away from those who are making your life worse not better?
It did not take me long in ministry to realize some relationships are toxic. As much as we may long for the relationship to become healthy, this will not occur until the person who is sabotaging the relationship and throwing hand grenades into every encounter is ready to change.
Herod was not at that place in today’s text, and God knew it. Herod had no intention of paying homage to Jesus as the Wise Men did. He would have had Jesus killed, just as he had ordered the deaths of all his rivals.
So what did God do? He sent the Wise Men home by a different route so they would not go near Herod.
Is God trying to lead you in a new direction?
As we move into a New Year filled with hopes and dreams and opportunities, is it time for you to move walk away from a toxic relationship? Is it time for you to move from a land of fear to a place of hope?
I hope you will take the first steps this week.
Earlier, I said I believe this story was included in Matthew’s gospel to describe the kind of world into which Jesus was born. It was a land of hope and fear.
I believe there was another reason it was included. This was to inform us there are two groups of people in the world—those, like the Wise Men, who seek to know God and to discover where God is at work so they can partner with God and participate with others, and those, like Herod, who live for themselves and do whatever is necessary by any means to protect, preserve and increase what they have.
The first group makes hope visible wherever they go to those who have been beaten and bruised by the harshness of life. The second group sows seeds of fear and despair.
Which group are you in?