2 Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men[a] from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, 2 “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose,[b] and we have come to worship him.”
3 King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. 4 He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:
6 ‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
are not least among the ruling cities[c] of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’[d]”
7 Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. 8 Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”
9 After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! 11 They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
A couple weeks back, while worshiping with Shiloh Church from our hymns books, God stirred something in my heart. As we were singing the hymn “Gloria in excelsis Deo '' I was reminded of my childhood experience of growing up in the Catholic Church during Christmas time…
The Lord took me back to when I was about 10 years old in church with my mom and grandma who faithfully forced me to go. I remembered the smell of the pews I leaned on, thumbing through a hymnal, and sheepishly singing along to the hymn at my mom's request. Although I had no idea what I was singing, I sang anyway. I did not know Jesus at that point in my life, but He knew me. Not only did He know me, but he used that moment to make a mark on my heart that would follow me all my life, whether I knew it or not. He’s so good. Even when I was His enemy, His love pursued me. Twenty-five years later I am just now seeing how God used that moment in my life, despite all my brokenness and mess. As we sang this same song in Shiloh and the Lord brought this revelation to mind, I became overwhelmed with emotion and thankfulness. I'm so glad I can now joyfully sing this hymn to my Savior and know what I am singing. Thank you Mom and Grandma for making me go to church so I could have that experience. Thank you Jesus for using their simple obedience and imprinting your love on me, even when I did not know you.
Jesus is so faithful. I am positive that most of us have similar memories of encountering God within whatever Christian Christmas traditions you were raised around. I love that. Jesus can meet us wherever He wants to. Further proof that He is God and He is in no way restrained by us. Though as wonderful as these memories can be, there is also a subtle trap the enemy tries to lay in the midst of Christmas bliss and nostalgia. If we are not careful, we can begin to believe that the way we are accustomed to experiencing God during Christmas is the only or best way to experience Him. This belief can then cause us to replace His presence, by trying to recreate memories of past encounters with His presence. When we do this we miss the fresh outpouring of what He’s intending to do in our midst in the now. It's a form of spiritual blindness. When we try to make a clean and tidy replica of a past move of God we miss the new thing He is doing today. We can even begin to worship memories of what God has done in our lives, instead of seeing Him now and responding to His presence in worship. I know as I write this, some will take this as a challenge or accusation. I promise it’s not. I am as guilty of this as anyone. I may just be foolish enough to admit it. I'm sure I am as guilty of this as much as anyone I know, but still, I am also convicted. I am convicted that I don't have to be afraid of different, or unexpected Christmas messes that seem unfamiliar or foreign. In fact, as I study Scripture I find that there were plenty of unexpected messes, in every direction, when Emmanuel made His grand entrance into our very broken world. Jesus’s presence came into the world in a way that no one could possibly guess the exact time, location or circumstances. Why? Because it was foreign to the way people expected the King of Heaven to come. It was in no way, a neat and tidy Christmas. The first Christmas involved genocide, the lowest cast of society attending the birth, a manger surrounded with filth and animals, a young virgin girl and young man dealing with the divine scandal of Mary’s conception. The Christmas story reads like a modern day soap drama if we're honest. There is mess in every direction. The only people who knew where to look for Jesus were a very unique group of men we call the “Wise Men”. You need to know that these wise men were not Hebrew believers. A better translation for these men would be “Magi”, also known as a sorcerer, magician or wizard. They were of foreign origin and known as Oriental scientists. Shocking, I know. Now, before you throw away your “eastern medicine peddler” formally known as wise men from your nativity scene, you should consider why God allowed these men to follow a star to the location of Jesus’s birth. If I am being honest, it all feels a little out of the box, New Age even. There is no clear reason why God chose to allow these foreign men to be some of the first people to ever lay their eyes on our God in flesh. My best guess is to follow the theme of Scripture and the messy nativity story. The wise men, like all the other aspects of Christmas, were unexpected and a little complex in their own beliefs. The most important thing that can be said of this trio is they were most certainly looking for God's presence on earth, and they had no prior Christmas traditions or preconceived notions of what it should look like to get in the way of finding Him. I believe that to be a profound element of the Christmas story. God is simply looking to reveal Himself to humble people who are not telling Him what He should look like. Again, I love all of our western Christmas traditions. I love Nativity scenes, Christmas trees, gift giving, Christmas hymns, lights, caroling etc… All of these traditions are good, and have no ties to pagan traditions, as some would suggest. All of these wholesome traditions are an annual reminder of God’s love and faithfulness in days past. At the same time, we must be aware and not allow our traditions to cause us to miss searching for and partnering with His presence today.
I’ll finish with this. He is gracious to encounter His people. It’s His desire, but when I try to reduce what He is doing now to an experience I have had in the past, I substitute a living God for a nostalgic memory. I refuse to do this. The true Christmas experience is understanding that despite the messiness, lack of understanding or maybe just not seeing what we prefer, His presence is very much available if we will just seek Him. This Christmas season is an opportunity to experience His presence if we choose to let go of what we think it should look like. When we simply come before Him with humble hearts, I know His presence will show up in power and love. Then those who don’t know him but are searching, will have the opportunity to be marked by His love in a tangible way for eternity.