His Presence: Received by Us

Texts: John 3:16-Meta Theme
Matthew 2:1-12-Magi


Community Group Questions:

1.  Have you ever been disappointed with person’s response to a gift you gave them?

2.  Read, or have someone in your group quote from memory, John 3:16. What comes to mind when you see this verse on a sign at a ballgame or somewhere else, besides church? 

3.  Talk about the difference between saying, “I have received Christ.” and saying, “I am receiving Christ.”

4.  What part of the Christmas story, (the foretelling of his birth, Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, the journey to Bethlehem, the angels announcement to the shepherds and their visit to the newborn Christ, the visit of the Wise Men to the toddler Jesus, or another piece) stays with you throughout the year.


Sermon Notes:

It’s my privilege this morning to share with you a message from God’s word on the last Sunday of 2014. This morning also marks the last in a series of sermons on the Presence of God. Two weeks ago, we heard from Pastor Andrew a message titled, “His Presence: Prepared for Us.” Last week Pastor Jay continued with the theme of God’s presence with his message on the birth of Christ, “His Presence: Given to Us.” This week, I’ll wrap things up in our series arranged around the theme of 

John 3:16-"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (NIV) 

It’s that last part; “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That we’ll explore this morning against the backdrop of the final chapter in the Christmas story, the visit of the wise men to the Christ child. 

Next week our Senior Pastor will return to begin the New Year with a series of messages on Being the Church. He’s taking this week off to travel with his family, but he really misses you when he’s not here. He told me he’d be listening to the podcast later today, so let’s give him a shout out. We love you, Pastor Larry. See you next year.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. As Andrew reminded us in his message, this in the most often memorized passage of scripture in the Bible. You’ve seen it on signs at ball games and on bumper stickers. It’s short and simple and we are so familiar with the words that we might forget it represents the most important truth we will ever know.

The greatest gift of all, His very Presence, has been offered to every single person, but we have to choose to receive God’s gift.

The story of the wise men or magi is one of the most well know stories in the Bible. Little is known about these eastern wise men, but their response to the one born King of the Jews illustrates for us the attitude we all should have when we realize what His birth really means. The story is short. It’s a brief passage in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, but in it we see the gift of God’s Son received in three distinct ways. We all know the wise men responded with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but there is more to their story. Matthew’s Gospel also tells us about the manner in which the news of Jesus birth was received by Herod, the king and by the Jewish religious leaders in his royal court. 

Let’s consider the story together. I’m going to read the entire passage through and then we’ll look a little closer at the ways in which Jesus birth was received by the wise men and by others.

You’ll find this story in your copy of God’s Word, in the New Testament book of Matthew. Matthew chapter 2, verses 1-12. Follow along with me in your Bible or on the screen as we revisit this familiar story.

The Visit of the Magi

Matthew 2:1-12 (NIV)

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: 6 " '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 be the shepherd of my people Israel.' " 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him." 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 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 and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.         

How we receive or respond to a gift is a matter of choice that reflects our character. Our choice doesn’t change the nature of the gift, but does change the impact it will have in our lives.

How we receive or respond to a person looks different. We can’t put a person on a shelf or in a closet the way we would with even the most valued material gift. We receive a person in a more dynamic way. 

Let’s look closer at the ways in which the Christ child was received by Herod, the Jewish religious leaders and the Magi.

It is interesting that neither Herod nor the Chief Priests denied the significance of Christ’s birth, they just responded, or received the news in a different way.

Herod received the news of Jesus’ birth with resentment. He was the king and could not allow anyone else to be in control. Andrew spent some time in his message helping us understand just how paranoid and power-mad Herod had become late in his rule. He was getting near the end of his life, but his lust for power had not mellowed. Suddenly these wise men showed up and claimed that the one who would take his throne had been born nearby.

Herod was a terrible, hate filled, paranoid narcissist. But we may be more like him than we want to admit. The Good News of the Gospel, that we can be delivered from the just penalty of our sin because the Christ, who came into this world as a baby in a manger, died on a cross to save us; it strikes at our desire to control or be in charge of everything in our own lives. Receiving Christ means we no longer get to sit on the throne of our own lives. 

 The Chief Priests and Teachers of the Law received the news of Jesus’ birth with apathy. It didn’t take them long to put the claims of the Magi together with the prophecy of the Old Testament prophet Micah. This would have been evidence to them that the long awaited Messiah had arrived.

They read to Herod and the wise men from the prophecy of Micah:

Micah 5:2 (NIV)

2 "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. "

The news they had been waiting for all their lives was before them, but there is no evidence that they sought to investigate further or verify what was clearly implied by the claims of the Magi.

Maybe they were afraid any curiosity on their part would be perceived as disloyalty to Herod. He had built them a beautiful Temple, and generously provided them with a comfortable lifestyle. Perhaps it just wasn’t worth risking their comfortable position in Herod’s court on the chance that what the Magi claimed was true. The Magi were, after all, foreigners with strange ideas.

The apathy of these scribes and priests, brings to mind the words found in:

John 1:11-12 (NIV)

11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God--

The Magi received the news of Jesus’ birth with reverence, gratitude and obedience. 

Biblical scholars still have many questions about these Magi or Kings from the east. Some outside the Christian tradition have even suggested that the story of the Magi is a fictional event depicted in scripture. Serious scholars of this era, however, point to a number of independently verifiable, extra-biblical sources that verify the story in general, so we accept the story as a legitimate part of the narrative of Christ’s birth while remaining curious about the identity of the wise men. 

Matthew tells us that these Magi were from the east. This leads us to believe that these wise men obtained their learning and status from the tradition of the royal wise men and councilors to kings in Persia and Babylon. We find some clues about this tradition in the Old Testament Book of Daniel.

Daniel was among the Israelites taken captive when Nebuchadnezzar defeated Israel and carried hundreds of men and women into captivity in Babylon. Daniel became famous among the exiles and throughout Babylon because God bestowed on him great wisdom and the ability to interpret the dreams of King Nebuchadnezzar. 

On one occasion, Daniel’s accurate interpretation of the King’s dream saved all the wise men, or magi, in Babylon from execution. It’s likely that this event and others motivated men who were truly wise to learn all they could about the God of Israel.

The exiled Israelites carried their sacred traditions and knowledge of God with them into captivity, either in written form or in the form of long passages memorized through repetition. The book of Micah, where we see the prophesy of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, was likely a part of the collected wisdom the Israelites carried with them into captivity. 

We know that the Wise Men in our story acknowledged Jesus’ divine origin, if not his full divinity. Their question of Herod, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” uses grammatical construction that places emphasis on the word “born.” This made their question more disturbing to Herod because it implied one who was and is the King of the Jews by virtue of his birth, while Herod had given himself the title “King of the Jews” in an attempt to legitimize his appointment by Rome. 

The wise men in our story had been searching for Jesus for some time. We don’t know exactly how long, but if the star they saw became visible upon Jesus birth they may have been traveling or searching for 18 months or more. 

This brings us to an interesting point. We place the wise men in the nativity scenes we display in our homes and communities, but the story clearly places Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a house in Bethlehem. And Herod’s murder of innocent children under a certain age when the wise men failed to return, supports the possibility that Jesus could have been as old as 2 years when the wise men came to his home. A toddler! And yet they received him with reverence as they bowed before him.

The wise men received Jesus with reverence and with gratitude. Matthew tells us, “they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.” I recently heard someone refer to this event as the holy baby shower. I’m not sure Mary and Joseph registered for gold, frankincense and myrrh at Baby GAP, but the magi gave Jesus the greatest treasures they had; gifts fit for a king.

Receiving His Presence through the Lord’s Supper.

This morning we have the opportunity to join with the Wise Men and receive the Christ of Christmas in a real and personal way. As a part of our service this morning we will observe the Lord’s Supper; also called the ordinance of Communion. In doing so, we follow the example of the disciples as they ate with Jesus, at his request, on the final night before his crucifixion, and the example of members of the early church who regularly gathered together to share this symbolic communion meal.

There is some variation among Christian traditions when it comes to the ordinance of Communion, Holy Communion or the Eucharist, as it is sometimes called. But all traditions agree that it is more than just eating a wafer of bread and drinking of the cup; in our case grape juice to symbolize wine. In the act of eating and drinking we receive the presence of Christ in a renewed and meaningful way while contemplating his life and death.

Before we begin this part of our service, I’d like to read to you the instructions for receiving communion given by the Apostle Paul to the first century church at Corinth. I’m reading from 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.

Lord’s Supper

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Tables have been set up at the corners of our worship center with the elements of the Lord’s Supper. You can begin making your way to one of these tables at this time. Remember that we are receiving the presence of Christ when we take the bread and the cup and should be mindful of both his birth and his death for our sake at this time. 

At each table you will also find some note cards and pens. This is the way we can join the Magi who gave gifts to Jesus as they received his presence into the world through his birth. After you have received the presence of Christ through Communion, take a moment to write on a card the gift you will give to our Savior this year. Think about something you can do to welcome him into your life, your home, your school or your workplace. You can place your gift to Jesus in the box on each communion table.

At Northshore Church, we practice open communion. This means we welcome all who would testify that they have received Christ as Savior to join us in the ordinance of communion. 

As you return to your seat after receiving communion, take some time to reflect on the ways you are receiving the Christ of Christmas into your life. A new year is approaching. How will you make Christ welcome in your life in 2015?

After the wise men received Jesus with reverence and gratitude, they were challenged to respond to God’s leading by taking a different path; by going a different way. The scripture tells us that, “having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”

One of the marks of those who have received the Christ of Christmas is the willingness to go another way. Our standard is not what’s common, or acceptable, just what everyone else is doing. Our standard is that which brings honor to God and reflects the presence of Christ in our lives.

Going a different way is a theme that we see echoed in the teaching of Christ and elsewhere in the New Testament. 

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenged his followers to enter through the narrow gate because the wide road traveled by so many leads only to destruction.

Matthew 7:13-14 (NIV)

13 "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

The Apostle Paul challenged Christians in the early church to be transformed by the presence of Christ and avoid being conformed to the world around them.

Romans 12:1-2 (NIV)

1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.

As we wrap up our time together, my challenge for you this morning, my challenge for all of us, is to receive Christ anew as we begin a new year; not because his presence in our lives is perishable, but because as humans, we can forget, or lose focus on the truth that Jesus was born because we need a Savior. If your have received him as Savior, remind yourself of the terrible and beautiful truth that you once were lost, but have been found by a loving God who gave his life for you on the Cross.  

If you have never received Christ as your Savior, I want you to know that the main reason this church exists is to see the one who gave himself for us exalted and those he gave himself for transformed. Christ will transform your life, and we are here, today and in the days to come if you have questions about what it means to receive the presence of Christ.

Please join me in prayer:

Our Worship Team is coming again to lead us in a final song. This is our time of invitation, of prayer and of reflection. If you would like to come forward and use this stage as an alter for prayer, we welcome you. If you would like someone on our pastoral team to pray with you, we’ll be here. These are our last moments together as a gathered church this year. Let’s experience God’s Presence together.