Are You a Wise Man?: Three Possible Responses to the Christmas Story

“The Magi Journeying” by James Tissot

1 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, 2 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.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 

6 “‘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.’” 

7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 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.” 9 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. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 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. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-12)

I’ve always been struck by this story, so much so in fact that it often finds its way into my devotionals this time of year. Matthew sets up such a stark contrast between Herod, the chief priests and scribes, and the wise men from the east, all of whom were operating with the same information, but none of whom reacted to that information in the same way. While at various points in the story, all three parties knew who had been born (v. 2), where he had been born (v. 5), and why he had been born (v. 6), their responses were vastly different, and I believe mirror the only 3 responses any of us will have to Jesus’ birth story this Christmas:

1. Apathy (Chief Priests and Scribes)

It’s incredibly sad that this is the reaction of the chief priests and scribes because they were the ones who had possession and knowledge of Scripture. They would have heard the prophecies of Messiah’s birth since they were children. Yet that knowledge apparently hadn’t motivated them at all to seek the Messiah that had been promised. Even after the wise men’s arrival prompts Herod to ask them for information (which they promptly give), they still seem to have no strong feelings either way and apparently just went right back to contemplating their navels.

If you’ve grown up hearing about Christmas all your life, but have no strong feelings either way about Jesus’ birth, this is the category you fall into. At best, you’re bored by the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth, and at worst, you don’t care. For you, Christmas has become shopping, Santa, gifts, parties, and time off from work or school. Even the joy and celebration of those around you can’t bring out any feeling in your own heart. Unfortunately, I believe this response is prevalent even within the church, among those who should be eagerly awaiting the Messiah’s return, echoing the fact that it was originally seen among the very people who should have been anticipating his first coming.

2. Anger (Herod)

Ironically, whereas the Jewish leaders don’t care about the Messiah being born, Herod cares very much. He becomes troubled and starts down an emotional path that eventually leads him to order the murder of infant boys. Herod was a king, and his claim to the throne wasn’t all that legitimate. So the birth of someone with a legitimate claim to the title of King of the Jews was a big problem. Herod didn’t reject the Christmas story out of unbelief. He believed the Messiah had been born, but he was afraid of losing his throne so he reacted in anger to try and stop that from happening.

All of us have had this reaction at one point in our lives. We may have fallen back into apathy or moved forward to a response similar to the wise men, but all of us have at times been angry about the Christmas story. See, like Herod, we are all kings. We have set ourselves up as kings over our hearts, our lives, our futures. And like Herod, our claims to those thrones aren’t legitimate. This is what sin is. It’s not just committing an action that God doesn’t like. It’s usurping his authority over our lives. This is why there is so much anger when anything religious infringes on a holiday increasingly commercialized and sterilized. All this talk of sin, a savior, and incarnation kills our buzz and reminds us that we are all just rebels at heart.

3. Adoration (the Wise Men)

Interestingly, the ones who respond correctly to the Christmast story are those who had the farthest to travel. The wise men didn’t live locally or have the cultural and religious familiarity with the story that Herod and the chief priests and scribes had. But they searched for the Messiah, believed what they heard, and fell down before the Child in worship, offering precious gifts, and spurning the anger of the king to keep him safe.

Why Your Response to Christmas Matters

What is your response to the Christmas story? Notice that the wise men didn’t just show up and expect to be blessed, like so many whose only season of piety begins on Christmas Eve and ends on December 26th. Really, that’s just another form of apathy. They worshipped him and offered up their treasures. They had a response that demanded action, not apathetic lip-service. They bowed in submission and adoration.

Your response to Jesus’ birth does matter. While we see him as a humble helpless baby in the Christmas story, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)

Ultimately, Herod, the chief priests and scribes, and everyone who responds to the Christmas message with apathy or anger will bend the knee before Jesus, as the wise men did 2000 years ago. But those who willingly respond in adoration now, giving up their illegitimate claim to the throne, and accepting the Messiah who came to save, can eagerly await the return of Immanuel, when we will stand with the wise men and experience what the apostle John foresaw:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. (Revelation 21:1-3)

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