Today we arrive at the twelfth day of Christmas. On the first day of Christmas, we celebrated the arrival of our Lord Jesus Christ, a partridge in a pear tree, born of Mary in the little town of Bethlehem. He came with the herald of God’s angels, appearing to shepherds tending their flocks by night. God had come to his people, and his people worshiped him. This was the long-awaited Messiah, and as we learn from the story of Simeon in the temple, the arrival of Jesus was the arrival of the consolation of Israel. Here was hope and assurance, comfort and promise. However, on the twelfth day of Christmas, we recall another group that came to worship our Lord, a band of unlikely guests that search him out and bring their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Now, to start, we should probably clear up a few things about these so-called wise men. These men that bear their gifts to Bethlehem are the Magi. Magi were usually servants of a king’s court, and they dealt in the realm of dreams, astrology, and magic. Despite the famous song, they were not kings themselves, but the servants of kings. They weren’t wise like we usually think of wisdom—at least not godly wisdom. They are pagan unbelievers and practitioners of the dark arts. We might well assume that they travel to find this new born king because they are hoping to secure jobs in the king’s court. And despite what your manger scene portrays, they don’t show up there. They come much later to Bethlehem, and their arrival is shocking and confusing for all those who rejoice in the birth of Christ.
God was faithful to the promises that he made to his people. The great Emmanuel had come bringing salvation, hope, and assurance to the children of God. Those who first heard the tale of Matthew’s Gospel would have been engaged and ready to hear what happened after Mary gave birth and Joseph named him Jesus as the angel instructed. They would have been eager to see how the revelation of God’s great work would unfold as the story moved from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to a cross and an empty tomb. Finally hope has come, and they would long to see how it plays out. But this scene, this twelfth day of Christmas text is crazy. What does the arrival of the Messiah have to do with these confused gentile sinners who come from some foreign land? Why does Matthew make sure we know about the adoration of the Magi?
Perhaps the reason for this inclusion anticipates this very moment we share today. It could be that Matthew records this specifically for you. That’s not to say he was thinking of a group of Christians gathering for worship in Ventura, California roughly 2,000 years after the events happened. Rather, he anticipates a church that would be dominated by a bunch of Gentile sinners. For I think that just as shocking as it is that the Magi traveled to worship our Lord and bring him their gifts, it is surprising that we gather together to do the same. You are the unlikely guests who have come into the house of our Lord. You come from various backgrounds with your own baggage and your own confusions and misguided acts of devotion. How many of you come into this place longing for hope or comfort because you cannot find it in your daily life? How many of you come with empty hands unsure about your future and terrified that those around you might learn the truth about your insecurities and anxieties? How many put that big smile on their face to try to cover up secrete shame and disgust with their own thoughts, words, and deeds? How shocking it is that you have come to the house of the Lord.
I will never forget an unusual interaction that happened between an old friend of mine and a bartender at a little place we called “The Bucket” back in Georgia. I had met up with Jim and our usual group of guys who rode motorcycles together one Wednesday night after I finished teaching Bible Study at church. I used to change out of my churchy clothes into something more suitable and ride down there straight from church. That night when I came in through the door, Jim was having a rather loud conversation with the bartender about how she ought to come and check out our church.
It is difficult to describe his method of evangelism. It wasn’t impassioned pleas for spiritual care or intellectual apologetics defending the faith. I guess I would say it was more along the lines of abrupt disinterest. When entering that fine establishment, I clearly heard him say rather loudly, “Look I don’t care if you come or not. You don’t have to blow smoke up my butt. But if you want to come, I think you would like it, and you’re more than welcome to sit with me and my family.” Now, Jim would often describe himself as “biker trash,” and while I don’t think that is true, if you were to close your eyes and picture what a guy like that might look like, that is most likely what Jim looked like. As I slid onto the bar stool next to him, she looked at me and said, “But I don’t have anything appropriate to wear to church.” And before I could answer Jim said, “Want to know what I wear? You’re looking at it. No one cares. Quit making excuses. If you don’t want to come just say so.”
As I watched that conversation unfold, something became quite clear. Jim had brought into the light something that the rest of us would rather cover up. We are the most unlikely of guests to enter our Lord’s house. The fact we want to spruce up our appearances, make ourselves look a little better, a little more righteous, a little more deserving of being in the presence of the gifts of God, betrays the truth that we do not belong there.
But this is the incredible and shocking message of the Gospel. With the coming of our great Emmanuel, everything that is not Christ is stripped away. He alone is the way, the truth, and the life. This means that all the other gods of your life, all the other things that you turn towards to find your place in the world, are exposed as false and fleeting. It means that the Israelites could no longer simply claim that they have Abraham as their father and that you cannot claim your own wisdom, righteousness, or devotion as the source of hope and everlasting life. It all narrows down to one point, one source, one hope from which everything else flows. And that one point is the life, death, and resurrection of your Lord. But just as the narrowing down to Jesus alone destroys whatever else we might want to place our hope in, once you have hope in Christ, everything is then opened wide. For those who are welcomed into his presence are not defined then by your ideal. They are not kept out by our barriers or limited by your demands. Christ welcomes into his presence the most unlikely of guests. He welcomes sinners, the broken and hurting people of this age. He welcomes the fearful and the confused, the timid and the proud. He welcomes all who by faith believe in his name.
Notice the journey of these Magi to our Lord’s house. They connect the appearance of this star to an ancient rumor of the birth of a king. Following this divine revelation, they arrive in Jerusalem to see King Herod, for this would be the likely place to find a king of the Jews. From there Herod has his scribes search the Scriptures and they are directed by the Word of God to Bethlehem. Herod tells them to search for the child. When they find him, they are to come back and tell him so that he too might worship. Off they go. Having followed a star sent by God, they follow the Scriptures of God. Now the star again leads them right to the home where Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child reside. And after giving their gifts they are warned in a dream sent by God not to return to Herod. For Herod isn’t looking to worship but to rid himself of a rival king.
These unlikely guests are brought to our Lord, not by their own wisdom, not by their own cunning, not by their own strength and cleverness, but by the revelation of God. So it is with you. You are brought here this day, not by what you have done, not by your own works or merits, but by the call and work of God upon you. You are the unlikely guests who come with empty hands, with nothing to offer the Author and Creator of all things. And here he fills your empty hands with the greatest of all gifts. He fills you with the blessings of his only begotten Son. He fills you with hope of life everlasting, assurance of victory from sin, death, and the power of the Devil. He welcomes you with open arms and declares for all to hear that you are forgiven, each and every one of you. It is worth noting that when the Magi arrived at the house of our Lord they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matt. 2:10). So should we. For this is the place of our epiphany, the place of welcome for the children of God, for the forgiven, for you.