Shining Star – Dec. 23, 2018

In an affluent neighborhood in California, a family decided to go out on Christmas Eve and serenade their neighbors with carols.  In one house where they stopped, there was inside, hectic noise and confusion.  It was clear that the tension was high as people rushed around to get everything just perfect.

After they rang the doorbell, a haggard lady swung open the front door and let out a big sigh, “Not now, please; we’re too busy,” she said. The gentleman in the group merely said, “Yes, ma’am,” and they moved on.

It was ‘Bing and Kathy Crosby with their kids’. All they wanted to do was share a little Christmas Joy but one family couldn’t find the time. (True story)

If we listen carefully, we will hear the word “Joy” thrown around an awful lot at Christmas time.  It is found in many hymns; like in ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’; where we sing, ‘tidings of comfort and joy’.  In ‘O Come all ye faithful’ when we sing,’ joyful and triumphant’. And who could forget ‘Joy to the World’?

Poet Emily Matthews wrote, “From home to home, and heart to heart, from one place to another; the warmth and joy of Christmas brings us closer to each other.”

Let me ask you, do you feel it?  Do you feel joyful this year?  Do you feel like this really is The Most Wonderful time of the Year?  And are you beginning to bubble over with excitement?

A couple of Christmas’ ago, the Pew Research Center did a random study of over several thousand people.  They polled young and old, of different backgrounds, gender, and race.  Of those, 51% said, “Christmas was a religious holiday that honored the birth of Jesus.” But a record high, 32%, said Christmas was merely a cultural holiday. 69% of all people asked said – the most important thing about Christmas is being with family or friends.

Finally, the question that rocked me was this one; “Is Christmas a time when you feel exceedingly happy or joyful?” Only 7% said that it was. The rest said it was time off for relaxing and fun, – or bland and stressful.

I could be way off, but I am betting that the more we move away from Jesus – and toward a universal understanding of Christmas, the more our joy also decreases. So the question I want to address is… ‘How can we increase our level of joy this Christmas?’ The answer, I think, can be found in the story of the Magi in Matthew’s gospel.

Chapter 2 opens with these words, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Magi came from the East.”  We know that they did not arrive the evening Jesus was born like the shepherds did. They witnessed the star from a far off place, recognized its importance, gathered the resources they needed and traveled to find the new born king.  All of this took them almost 2 years.

At that time, Jesus and his parents would have been staying in a home in or near Bethlehem with relatives. We know the time frame because Herod gave orders to kill all the boys age 2 and under in Bethlehem and its vicinity after the Magi left.

Who were these mysterious men that came to worship Jesus? 

We may hear them called Wise Men, Kings or Magi. The Greek term Magoi refers to a group that is interested in predicting the future by way of dreams, magic or astrology. It is interesting to note that these men probably came from Persia, an area where Magi flourished. Kings would hire them to predict the future and interpret dreams.

The Magi had probably heard of the predictions of a coming king from Jewish exiles. The Magi believed that an unusual star could be a ‘fravashi’, which means an angel or a cosmic event; signaling the arrival of a great man.

It was always a good practice to honor and welcome a new king, so that they could build good relations in the future.  So that was more than likely their motivation.

The Magi would have clearly and carefully noted the time the star appeared and its approximate location. Then, when they collected all they needed, including ‘three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh’, they headed toward Jerusalem.

It is unlikely that the star remained in the sky the entire time they traveled. We have no idea how many Magi there were or how big their caravan was, but it must have been fairly large because when they arrived in Jerusalem, they stood out.

King Herod spoke with them and asked them to return and share where this child king was born after the visit. Then they traveled to Bethlehem. Magically, the star seemed to re–appear.  Scripture says, “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.”

Have you ever paused to consider how much joy the Magi had?  The Greek word for overjoyed means “They rejoiced exceedingly with great pleasure.” In other words, they weren’t just happy; instead, they experienced an ‘over-the-top kind of rush’.

Scholars have described the Magi as feeling:  hysterical joy; fierce, deeply moving joy; extreme delight; and an unspeakable joy.  One modern writer said the Magi saw the star – and they lost it! I just wonder, when was the last time you felt like that? 

I remember coming down on Christmas morning and seeing the presents as a child – and feeling overjoyed, elated. I also remember seeing the birth of my children and feeling a crazy, unspeakable joy. You might have felt that way after kissing your significant other for the first time or after graduation, when you received your diploma.

For the Magi, this was the most important event in their lives.  They would never be the same. It was a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a new king.  They were elated, – yet humbled.  Overjoyed, – yet respectful.

Have you ever worshipped in a ‘Spirit-filled’ church?  People are shouting “Amen, Praise God, and Hallelujah!”  Sometimes they even start dancing in the isles.  That is hysterical joy.

In an old Peanuts cartoon, Lucy is talking to Charlie Brown.  She asks, “Did you ever know anyone who was really happy…?” Before she can finish the question, Snoopy comes dancing into the next frame. 

His ears are flapping, his nose is pointed up and he is clearly overjoyed.  Lucy and Charlie Brown just watch him in amazement.

In the last frame, Lucy finishes her question, “Did you ever know anyone who was really happy …and was still in their right mind?”

I guess it just reminds us, that sometimes we have to avoid those people who would ‘steal our joy.’

Rev. Kent Crocket tells a story about getting overcharged for gas when he pulled into a full-service station.  They had charged him 7 dollars extra, just to pump the gas.  He said he was angry for several hours.

“As I was mulling over this terrible injustice.” He later wrote, “God showed me what I had done. I had sold my joy for seven dollars! I never realized how cheaply I would surrender something so valuable.”

Isaiah records these words that still ring true, “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the people.”  There are days ‘it sure feels that way to me’. But he doesn’t end there, “But the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears to you.” Then verse 5 reads, “Then you will look and be radiant, ‘your heart will throb and swell with joy’.” Isaiah 60:2-3,5

Dr Seuss wanted to capture that idea, and he did it well in his book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  In the original story, the Grinch had spent all night stealing the Who’s Christmas.  He thinks his actions will crush them and stop Christmas from coming, but, of course, he is wrong. 

As he puts his hand to his ear to hear them crying and sobbing; instead he hears them singing joyfully and he is confused.

Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing without any presents at all!

He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming! It came!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the Grinch, with his ‘grinch feet ice-cold in the snow’,
Stood puzzling and puzzling. “How could it be so?
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
It came without packages, boxes, or bags!”

He puzzled and puzzed – till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before.
What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store.
Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!

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Dr Seuss writes that The Grinch’s heart grew 3X’s its size.  Because now he understood that Christmas means “something more than commercialism.” It was like a light had been turned on in the darkness of his soul, and he had new hope, happiness and a real sense of joy.

Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “When a joy-filled person comes into the room, – it is as if another candle had been lit!”

It is the kind of joy we see in sparkling eyes and the cry of the voice of a delighted child on Christmas morning.  “Mommy, Daddy, get up, get up, Santa has come!  Hurry, hurry!” And it is the same look and sound we hear when someone has found and experienced Jesus for the first time.  Unspeakable joy.  Amazing joy.  That is the kind of rush the Magi experienced in Bethlehem.

My original question was, “How can we increase our level of joy this Christmas?” The answer is …We follow the example the Magi set.

First, we ask ourselves, “What or whom do we seek at Christmas?”  Our level of joy is directly-related to what or whom we seek.  “Things” are nice – but they do not last. Jesus is the true joy of Christmas.  He is our shining star.  He is the true light of the world and he brings hope, peace, joy and love.

The Magi got it right.  They were seeking a king – and they found the King of the Universe.  When they found him, they rejoiced and worshipped him. Have you seen His light?  Do you know where ‘real joy’ originates?  And do you worship with wild abandon?

The second thought is this: The magi knew where to look.  They kept watch ‘when everyone else had quit looking’.  God always gives a sign to those who are seeking. King Herod’s heart was not true.  Jesus was born in his backyard and Herod missed it.  The Magi were foreigners – and yet, they were willing to ‘risk the distance and conditions’ to meet the new king.

We too, are tempted to look in the wrong places.  We look outside at others, instead of inside.  Joy isn’t something we make – it is given when Christ makes a home in our hearts. The Magi kept open hearts and minds – and at the right time, they saw the truth.  They were anticipating joy. Finally, beams of heaven broke through – and love was born.

If you want a little more joy, seek and you will find.  Look in the manger and see the Word of Life. God loved us and sent his son. Jesus has redeemed us. Your sins can be forgiven and you are loved.

‘So arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises on you.’  It is time to let the joy of Christ, wash all over you. It is also time to share the Good News.  It is time to do joyful things and sing joyful songs.  It is time to celebrate the birth of our King.  Because Jesus Christ, born to us, changes everything!

            Your assignment is … to remember the word “light” this Christmas.  The L in Light stands for…

            L = LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF

            I = IMITATE CHRIST

            G = GET TO KNOW OTHERS

            H = HOSPITALITY, HOSPITALITY, HOSPITALITY (and)

            T = TELL THEM ABOUT JESUS

 Amen.