Last Sunday’s message wrapped around the amazing prophecy of Isaiah chapter 9:6 and its memorable refrain…
“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Handel’s Messiah famously set it to music, and I wanted to wait till today to tell you a story about that Scripture and that song. Mary Ellen Rothrock tells how when she was a grad student in university, she found herself deeply discouraged at the way the world is, with its violence and array of man-made problems. Looking around at those problems caused her to stop looking up, and she became an atheist. But she still had the longing for some kind of spiritual experience.
So she began practicing Eastern meditation with a guru mentoring her. A year or so into it, she mentioned a recurring thought to her meditation teacher, something that kept coming to mind when she was trying to meditate. It was a line from Handel’s Messiah, the phrase, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed”—which comes from Isaiah chapter nine!
To Mary Ellen, the words seemed to come from beyond this world. She found herself drawn to the joyful language: ‘Hallelujah! for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. … For unto us a Child is born … And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Her meditation guru told her to ignore it, but she knew they weren’t just random thoughts. Then one day it hit her: ‘The glory of the Lord shall be revealed’ was a personal invitation from God to seek him! Why couldn’t he be, Mary Ellen wondered, ‘Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace?’
She soon she met a Christian who explained how she could have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ of whom Isaiah chapter 9 speaks. Mary Ellen says, “As I heard the words from the Bible, the words from the musical score made sense. The Holy Spirit convinced me of the truth: the God I’d hungered for, the personal God, loved me. ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.’” For Mary Ellen Rothrock and so many others, through Jesus, the glory of the Lord has been revealed!
Source: Mary Ellen Rothrock, “The Lyric that Saved My Life,” Christian Reader, Nov-Dec 1998
This week builds on what Mary Ellen experienced and what you and I can experience, by way of Matthew’s birth narrative of Jesus. If you have a Bible or Bible app, open to Matthew chapter 2. While you’re turning there, the title for this week’s message is, “Worthy, Worthy, Worthy: The Trinities of Christmas.” I want to show you the lengths to which God has gone to draw you to saving faith in the Wonderful Counselor that Jesus is, by way of three triplets that Matthew touches on. We read…
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.”
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.’”
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.”
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. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
The first trinity or set of three that Matthew holds before us is that…
- God makes himself known in three ways.
God reveals himself in three ways highlighted in the Bible—what theologians call general revelation, special revelation, and the Holy Spirit’s illumination and conviction. You have experienced all three of these—and we pray that our family members and coworkers and neighbors will come to experience these three as well. Briefly, first there is…
- The general revelation of creation
Psalm 19 sings…
“The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.”
That’s a poetic way of testifying to how creation reveals God, makes him known—testifying that there is a God, and that he is powerful and very different from us. Romans chapter one says the same in the language of a prosecuting attorney making the case that everyone knows God exists because of the witness of the created universe. Paul writes, “What may be known about God is plain…because God has made it plain to [everyone]. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19-20)
You and your extended family members and your coworkers and your neighbors know that God exists because of the witness of creation. You and they stand before the ocean’s waves crashing ashore for millennia before us, knowing they will continue long after we’re gone, and we intuitively know there’s got to be more than just this life, and that life must have some meaning beyond just the brief span of our existence. The created universe doesn’t save anyone.
It doesn’t tell us everything there is to know about God or anything about reconciliation with God. But it’s a starting point, testifying to everyone.
And so this is where God started with the Magi who lived far from Israel. Something about the night skies fascinated them, grabbed their attention, and drew up within them a longing to know more—and so that’s where God met them first—through the general revelation of creation. Second, the second way God makes himself known in greater ways, is…
- The special revelation of Scripture
The Scriptures, Old Testament and New from Genesis to Revelation are a progressive pulling back of the curtain so that you and I and anyone who wants to know God and understand life’s purpose can discover these things.
The created universe’s author has progressively revealed himself throughout salvation history—from the very first covenant with Adam and Eve, through to the calling out and forming a people of his own in ancient Israel, to displaying his power and mercy and holiness in his miraculous dealings with them, through the supernatural predictive prophecies of the Messiah who would bring us forgiveness and give us new hearts and a secure future, to the coming of Jesus and his unique and authoritative teachings and death and resurrection, to God now forming a new people in Christ’s Church. Through each of these great moves of God recorded in the Scriptures, God powerfully and personally makes himself known to anyone who wants to know him.
There are story after story of skeptics who set out to disprove the Christian faith, but because of the revelation found in the Old and New Testaments, they came to faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. Albert Ross is one of many, author of the book Who Moved the Stone? He set out to prove that Jesus’ resurrection was a myth, but the evidence persuaded him otherwise. Many other skeptics have become Christians after reading that book.
I would also recommend Rebecca McLaughlin’s excellent book “Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion.” She wrestles honestly with questions about the Bible’s reliability, the role of science and faith, Christianity and women, making sense of suffering, and more. If you wrestle with doubts concerning Christ and the Christian faith, I highly recommend her book, and I’m glad to engage with those who read it.
God makes himself known through the general revelation of creation, through the special revelation of the Scriptures Old Testament and New, and third, God makes himself known through the…
- Personal illumination & conviction from the Holy Spirit
When you take in the witness of creation with its beauty, complexity, design, and power, and then pair it with the Bible’s witness concerning Jesus Christ and our need for a Savior, the Holy Spirit then personally and powerfully convinces, convicts of the truth you’re hearing, and illuminates or opens your eyes to your own need for Jesus. That’s the third and most personal way God makes himself known today as in ancient times.
For the Magi, there was a growing inner sense that they had to travel to Bethlehem. They had to see this child born King. Staying where they were, with only what they knew up to that point, was no longer enough, once the Holy Spirit began drawing them.
And so it is with every person who comes to saving faith in Jesus. You have a personal story about this as well, whether it includes recognizing the hand of God in the beauty of creation or the quiet grandeur of a starry night sky, or how the Holy Spirit awakened you to the truth of Scripture and you felt your need for Jesus and asked him into your life. All of that was—and continues to be in your life—God making himself known.
Thank God, he is in no way limited in his ability to make himself known! There’s the first triplet. The next trinity or triplet that Matthew holds before us is that…
- When it comes to Jesus, there are three kinds of people.
There are three kinds of people when it comes to Jesus—and all three are still found today.
- Some are hostile to Christ & Christians
Herod exemplified these. And as it was from the beginning, so it will be until Christ returns. For Herod, a child born king was an instant threat. We know from history that Herod was politically ruthless—having several members of his own family executed lest they usurp his power.
One of the takeaways from church history is some will always view Christ and Christians as a threat. Evangelist Billy Graham famously said one of the mysteries he could never understand is that the same sun that softens the butter hardens the clay. Some respond to Christ will others scoff.
You don’t need to get mad about that or angry against those who oppose Christ or Christians. Pray for them! Because some of the strongest antagonists can become great advocates of Christ and his kingdom: just look at Saul turned Paul!
You may have coworkers or extended family members who react negatively to your faith. Your responsibility is to let your light shine among them, that they may see your good deeds and be drawn to God. Your responsibility is to forgive when insulted, to love when hated, to do good to those who hate us, and to pray for the Holy Spirit to break through to them. That’s it. Do your part, and leave the rest to the one who is Lord. He can save them, too. And so we pray for that and press on in doing good. Pray that God will soften them and show them their need for the Savior.
Some are hostile against Christ and Christians. Secondly…
- Some are indifferent to Christ & Christians
Matthew highlights a surprise group who are indifferent to Christ: the chief priests and the teachers of the law, the Bible experts. They should have been the first to look for Jesus. They knew their Bibles, the Testament prophecy predicting where Messiah would be born, in Bethlehem. They could cite chapter and verse. But they were too comfortable where they were to bother seeking and finding the One who had at last come. It’s the strangest thing.
The caution for those of us who are Christians is to stay teachable, to stay open to God calling us to step out in faith and courage. Where the Bible speaks and the Holy Spirit nudges, that we trust and obey.
This is what Jesus constantly did with the Twelve, constantly teaching, challenging, and calling them to grow and change, not get set in concrete. And we see the wonderful results:
- John one of the sons of thunder becomes the apostle of love;
- Peter the impulsive becomes Peter the rock;
And so on. Authentic Christianity is about lifelong learning and growth in Christlike character. We never want to become lukewarm like the Laodiceans.
Some oppose Christ and Christians. Some are indifferent to Christ and Christians. And third, there are those we want to count ourselves among, and that is that…
- The wise bow & worship Christ
The Magi do precisely this. Whatever the inconvenience, however long the journey would take, however far they had to travel, and bringing lavish gifts with them, they seek until they find, and once they find, they worship the King. They do not stop and won’t stop until they find their King.
This Christmas, I pray you do the same. Call on Christ anew. Trust him anew. Give yourself to him anew. Thank God for him anew. And worship him anew. Whatever problems the year coming to an end has held for you, he has been with you in it. Whatever concerns or fears you may have for the year to come, the King is still here with you and for you. So join the Magi: bow and worship Christ the King.
These are the three wonderful ways God makes himself known, that we want to be responsive to each of them: the general witness of creation, the special revelation of God’s Word, and the conviction and illumination of the Holy Spirit.
These are the three kinds of people when it comes to Jesus: those who oppose Christ and Christians and those who are passively indifferent, but we want to join the Magi in readily bowing and worshiping Christ our King.
The sermon title again is “Worthy, Worthy, Worthy: the Trinities of Christmas.” And so we have one final trinity or triplet to act on. This is the best one of all—how…
- The gifts of the Magi hint at Jesus’ three great roles.
- Gold: Jesus is the King deserving of our full allegiance.
When the Magi found Jesus, Matthew says, they showed their faith and worship by opening their treasures and presenting the child-King with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Tradition holds that there were three Magi, but Scripture nowhere says that. It’s simply a guess based on them presenting these three gifts. Far more important than guessing their number is digging a bit deeper into the significance of the gifts they brought.
First comes gold, a gift fit for a King. Gold was for the privileged few back then, notably those in the highest places and with the most power. Kings and kingdoms were built on treasuries of gold and other precious metals. So when the Magi present the gift of gold to Jesus, they’re readily acknowledging what they admitted to Herod, that this child has been born a king.
That made Herod tremble with paranoia, but it makes Christians fall to our knees with gratitude. Praise God, there is a King over us! There is a King over all!
The most famous part of Handel’s Messiah is the Hallelujah chorus with its great roar of worship acclaiming Christ as King. There’s a portion in there that sings,
The kingdom of this world
Is become the kingdom of our Lord
And of His Christ, and of His Christ
And He shall reign for ever and ever
King of kings (Forever and ever Hallelujah! Hallelujah!)
That’s not just great poetry. Handel lifted it straight out of the New Testament book of Revelation chapter 11, where we read…
The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said:
“The kingdom of the world has become
the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,
and he will reign for ever and ever.”
And in response to this world becoming Christ’s kingdom, the heavenly creatures fall on their faces and worship the One who reigns, rules, and as King will both judge and reward. He will judge those who oppose him and his people, and he will reward those who have been faith-filled and faithful. The Magi’s gold to the infant-king was a preview of his majesty yet to be fully revealed. But revealed it will be! Praise God, Jesus is the King deserving of our full and complete allegiance.
And what a King he is! As someone has put it, the One born in Bethlehem is infinite, in the form of an infant. Here is God in the flesh, thriving in a placenta. God deep in the flesh…became God deep in the straw. Mary, the mother of the Creator, sustained the one who sustained all the living. He is our King, and we give ourselves to him.
Second, the Magi brought…
- Frankincense: Jesus is the High Priest we so need & forever have.
As the name suggests, frankincense was a kind of incense, resin from the Boswellia tree, used for making perfume and incense. It was one of the ingredients God instructed the Israelites to use in making the pure and sacred incense blend to be used in the most holy place in the tabernacle.
Exodus chapter 30 describes its special use, instructing the ancient Israelite priests, “You must treat this incense as most holy. Never use this formula to make this incense for yourselves. It is reserved for the Lord, and you must treat it as holy. Anyone who makes incense like this for personal use will be cut off from the community.” (Exodus 34:37-38)
Perfume and incense were available to others, but this special blend was set apart, holy, for the Jewish priests alone to use in worship as a sweet offering to God. In that role, frankincense is an Old Testament image of prayer—that just like that sweet-smelling incense ascended to God, so are the prayers of believers a fragrant offering to Him. Prayers of intercession are the priest’s role, and Jesus is our High Priest, the only one who could enter the most holy place to intercede on our behalf. He is our Mediator, standing in prayer even now before us and the holy God. so the Magi’s gift of frankincense pointed toward Jesus’ great role as the High Priest we so desperately need and thank God, the High Priest we always have, our ever-present help in time of need.
And then third, the Magi brought the gift of…
- Myrrh: Jesus is the Savior heaven sent for all who will have him.
One of the main uses of myrrh in ancient times was for embalming the body for burial. John chapter 19 describes Nicodemus and another man taking Jesus’ body to prepare it for burial, bringing myrrh with them for that purpose. On the cross as he was dying, too, Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh.
And so it all comes full circle here, from Jesus’ birth to his death, myrrh is at hand. The Magi’s final gift foreshadows Christ’s death as Savior for all who will have him. And best of all is that the Savior who died has risen. We serve a living Savior!
This Christmas, we gladly worship Christ our King.
We gladly come to Christ our High Priest, who mediates for us and has opened the way to God.
And we gladly come to Christ our Savior, the one who came to win our forgiveness and make us friends of God.
All you could ever hope for this Christmas, Jesus is, and far more.
- Creation testifies that we have a Creator.
- Scripture prophesies the coming of the Creator to become our Redeemer.
- And the Holy Spirit brings a sense of conviction and illuminates that this Redeemer is Jesus.
And so we join the Magi in bringing our full devotion to bow and worship Christ.
Would you pray with me?
For all you have done and still do to win us to yourself, Lord God, we give you thanks and praise.
For the witness of creation in all its power, complexity, and design, we stand in awe.
For the gift of the Holy Spirit’s convicting power and ability to open our eyes to your Word and ways, we praise you, and pray for tender, responsive hearts.
And for the gift beyond words of Jesus—King, High Priest, and Savior—we worship you.
Work among us, we pray, to continuously form a people befitting your name, O Christ. Amen!