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The Wise Men Cry Glory

Christ is worthy of the long journey to find him and worship him.

From the editor:

Here's a great sermon from one of our featured preachers—Mark Buchanan—that explores the story of the Magi and Herod through the lens of spiritual hunger. To listen along as you read, click here.

Story Behind the Sermon (from Mark Buchanan)

I've been in the preaching business for 20 years, so I have a love/hate relationship with the big immovable boulders in the Christian calendar - Advent and Easter. How to say something new without saying anything novel? How to approach the ancient, well-loved, much used texts with both reverence and freshness?

This sermon came out of a series called "Everything Cries Glory." Rereading the Nativity story, I was moved by the revelation of God's glory amid the ignominy of weary parents, smelly stables, grubby shepherds, murderous kings. I wanted to behold with wonder and to proclaim with gladness that glory.

In exegeting the story of the Magi, two things in particular struck me as a revelation of God's glory. First, I was struck by the way God both uses and subverts the Wise Men's paganism to draw them to himself. God's innovativeness in planting within decidedly non-biblical worldviews a series of clues that lead to the feet of Christ is very good news in our current cultural moment with its resurgent paganism. The second thing that struck me - but this theme I saved for Christmas Eve in the same series - is that the Wise Men do not follow the star - the star follows the Christ. The heavens declare the glory of God.

I decided to build this sermon around a remark King Herod makes to the Wise Men: "Go and make a careful search for the child." Pagans, on a hunch, using astrology, have travelled hundred of miles to do just that, while religious leaders, with the advantage of biblical revelation well in hand, won't cross the street to do it. The irony is sharp.

The sermon at heart is an appeal for all and sundry, regardless of their "orthodoxy" or lack thereof, to "go and make a careful search for the child."


What began your journey to Jesus? What was that moment, that person, that event, that song you heard, that story you heard, that tragedy that occurred that turned you Christ-ward? For me, it was a movie I saw when I was 12 or 13 years of age. I later found out that movie was being condemned and decried by the church. It was called Jesus Christ Superstar. Looking back, I can see all of its theological weaknesses. At the time, I was completely bowled over by the portrayal of the manliness of Christ. That was what the church found so offensive: the movie showed none of his divinity but all of his humanity. What I found so compelling was all of his humanity. At 12 or 13 years of age, it turned me Christ-ward, and 9 years later I bowed the knee. It was a long journey.

I speculate that people who meet Christ generally fall into two categories: those whom Christ just surprises one day, and those who start a journey that may take years to finish. Some people get surprised—ambushed—by Jesus. One day Jesus shows up and says hello. The shepherds in the field were like that. They were just minding their business, trying to get through the night, hoping some storm wouldn't blow in and wreak havoc or some predator wouldn't creep down and attack the flock. They were having a little chit chat: "Hey, how's the wife?" "Good, good. How about you?" They weren't expecting anything. And then the sky lit up and a song broke forth and the news was announced, "For unto you, a Savior has been born in Bethlehem." And they spontaneously responded to that news: "Let's go and see this thing that has happened." Jesus just showed up, in a sense. The glory of God unexpected, unbidden, unsought, suddenly was in their face. A lot of people have experienced that. They're minding their business, and then they meet somebody who tells them about Christ and something in their heart wakes up. They aren't on a spiritual search at all, but when they hear the news, everything in them says yes.

But then there is the kind of people the Magi represent. These people are not just hoping to get through the night; they can't wait for the night, because when the night comes they look at the stars. They scour them and study their configurations; they plot them on charts. They study sacred books to learn about prophecies. They go to Egypt, and they go to the Greek prophets and the Hebrew prophets. They go all over the place, because they are gripped by a lifelong quest to find the meaning of life. They've been spiritually hungry from birth. That's the other kind of person. They aren't just hoping to get through the night; no, they can't wait for the night. They're minding their business, indeed, but their business is finding out if there is some truth out there worth living for and dying for, because they want to find it.

The wise men eagerly searched for Christ.

How many wise men were there? We don't know. Church tradition says three, and that is because there are three gifts named: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We know somebody didn't come empty-handed. But there might have been eight gifts of myrrh and twelve of gold. We don't know. In fact, the older tradition says there were twelve of them. It's likely they came from either a priestly or a royal lineage or maybe both. We know they traveled hundreds of miles, and they would have brought an elaborate entourage. It wouldn't have been a skulking-through-the-shadows kind of mission, some inconspicuous little excursion. This would have been pageantry. It would have been a caravan of camels and servants and supplies to make this long journey. They caused a racket when they came into Jerusalem. They caught everybody's attention. They were a spectacle coming through.

The other thing you need to know about these Magi is that they were thoroughly, completely, top to bottom, pouring-of-out-their-pores pagan. These guys were pagan to the bone. That's the culture they came out of. The word Magi forms the root of the word magicians. These were magicians. Their magic was not some act they did at rotary clubs or whatever where they pulled strings of scarves out of their sleeves and rabbits out of hats. No, they believed thoroughly in the power of magic. They were steeped in it. And they were astrologers. They believed the stars predicted the future and told your fate. These guys were as pagan as pagan can get. But they had this inkling, this hunch that there was some truth out there worth the longest, most dangerous, most arduous journey—worth bringing their best gifts for. They had something in their hearts that said, There's something out there. Let's go looking.

God will do everything he can to help us find him.

God's greatest passion is to reveal his glory to the nations, so that in turn, the nations will bring glory to him. That is the overarching agenda of God. He's so intent on that, that if someone doesn't go and be the light unto the world, he will go directly to the least—to the shepherds in a field. If he doesn't have a church that will be the light to the world and go to the least of these, the shepherds out in the night, then he'll go to them directly. He's so intent on revealing his glory that if we won't go to the kings of the earth—like I say, these Magi may have been from royal descent—even though they might be steeped in their paganism, he will subvert the little knowledge they have to get them to come to him.

How many ways are there to God, according to the Bible? Just one, right? How do you get to God? Through Jesus. He's the only way. The only name in heaven and earth that can get you to God is Jesus Christ. How many ways are there to Jesus? How many people are there? Jesus is using all kinds of hints and glints to draw people to himself, and that's the story of these Magi. Here is what God would prefer would happen: that the people of God would be the light; that, in a sense, they would be the star of Bethlehem.

Paul says this in Philippians 2:14-15: "Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe." See, God intends for you to be the star of Bethlehem in a crooked and depraved generation. People are into all kinds of weirdness, but some are longing in their heart; they know there must be something out there. They're looking everywhere. They open the papers every day and read their horoscope. The church tends to say that's bad and stupid and wrong, but there's a hunger there and we're to be the star of Bethlehem. We're to be this light shining in the dark place, that when people follow us they find Christ. But if we fail to hold out the word of life and shine like the stars, God will use whatever means are ready to get people to him.

The people least in possession of the truth were most passionately in pursuit of it.

These Magi men come into Jerusalem. Can you see the scene? It's fantastic. One of the striking things about these Magi is that for all their legendary wisdom and profound thinking, they're kind of childlike. There's a kind of naivety about them. They come into Jerusalem, and they're not guarded at all. They're guileless. They're asking everybody, "Where's this king? Where's this king that was to be born? We want to see him and worship him. Do you know where he is?" They're so excited. They're giddy. It says their question finally reaches Herod, who is disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.

Here's their naivety: they think church people are interested. They think the people who have held the prophecy all these years, cherished the hope for centuries, are actually going to be excited that this thing has happened. How simple-minded of them to think people who know better are going to know better! They forgot that something happens in the hearts of people when they know the truth: they sometimes become arrogant and complacent within, and they stop looking. "Have you seen him, the king? The king! The king is born! Do you know where?" "Would you stop bothering me? I'm trying to shop." God's people can get caught up in the commercialism of Christmastime and forget it's about a king being born, who is Christ the Lord. We get caught up in all of the pressure and anxiety of the culture around us and don't shine like stars in it.

Here's where the story intersects with our story, rebuking us. The people who are least in possession of the truth are most hungry for it in the story. They are simply working on a hunch. They read the stars and got a sense that God was up to something. And they learned of this Hebrew prophecy. They thought maybe they were related, so they decided to go hundreds of miles at great expense to try to find out if it was true. The people least in possession of the truth were most passionately in pursuit of it.

God's people failed to act on the truth they possessed.

Then there were two groups of people—or one group and a person—who have total possession of the truth and do something very different with it in the story. The first is the group Herod falls in. He gathers all the religious leaders and asks them the question the Magi are asking. but don't have the answer to: "Where is this king of yours? Do you know where he is?" They know right away. They don't even have to say, "Give us a few weeks, and we'll work on it." They know chapter and verse: "Oh yes, it's Bethlehem. The prophet said so long ago. We've studied this, we've preached it, we've done Bible studies on it, we've written articles on it. I'm actually writing a book about it right now." The Magi are steeped in paganism but have a hunch. The religious leaders are steeped in truth. What do they do with the truth? Absolutely nothing! The Magi have just made a several months long, hundreds of miles, arduous, dangerous journey across the desert on a hunch. The religious leaders have five miles to travel between Jerusalem and Bethlehem and can't be bothered.

Church, God doesn't so much reward the knowledge in your head as the hunger in your heart. It is a dangerous thing to possess the truth and do nothing with it. It is better to have a hunch and go on a journey. I bet the wise men weren't young 'uns, and I bet their quest had taken them in a thousand wrong directions before it took them in the right direction. But God rewards the hunger in your heart more than the knowledge in your head. It's good to have truth. Obviously, you want to have truth. But if you're not going to do anything with it, if you can't be bothered to make the five-mile journey to see the fulfillment of the thing you've waited for all your life, it is better not to have that knowledge at all.

Why are you reading the Bible? Why are you studying and getting your theology good and correct? That's a good thing to do, don't mishear me. But if it's making you proud, complacent, and arrogant that you could correct in a hundred different ways the Magi's confusion in your head but don't have one ounce of their passion in your heart, then it's worse than useless in the eyes of God. Make sure you're converting your knowledge to some burning desire to get there and see this king.

Here's an interesting thing: These religious leaders may still have been alive when Jesus did ministry. Some of them would have been dead, but some of them may still have been alive. The people with whom Jesus had an issue in his ministry would either be these people, 30-some years older, or perhaps the sons and nephews of the people that came before Herod. And this is what Jesus says to those religious leaders: "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life" (John 5:39-40). Bible knowledge is fantastic, but if it isn't getting you to Jesus, it's dangerous. So that's one group of people in the story who possess truth but do nothing with it.

Herod knew he couldn't share the throne with Christ.

There's another person in this story who possesses truth and does something different with it. Who is it? Herod. He's not able to rattle off chapter and verse like the other guys. If you have that much power, you don't need to; you just call up the other guys. There are a lot of different Herods, by the way. Herod basically means "king." This is Herod the Great, which means "Great King." These guys are obsessed with their own greatness. It's all false glory. This Herod was notorious for his lavish lifestyle. This guy lived big, high on the hog. He was notorious for his pagan ways. He set up idols and shrines to everybody's gods. And he was notorious for his murderous impulses, because he lived with an overriding fear that he was going to be overthrown. At this point in history he had already killed his wife, three of his biological sons, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, his uncle, and many besides. He perceived them, even in some vague way, as a threat to his power. And he knew the truth about Christ. In fact, he'd been hunting the Christ as diligently as the magi had, but for very different reasons. He was as interested as they were in finding where Christ had been born. "Where's this king? I want to worship him like you. I will bring a gift, too—a long, sharp, shiny gift. Where is he? Come and tell me as soon as you find out." He's hungry to know. He's got a hunger in his heart, but it's not a hunger to worship Christ. He wants to size up his rival and deal with him decisively.

This story of the religious rulers, the senior pastors from all over Israel, serves up a rebuke to me: "Mark, are you just gaining knowledge, or are you doing something with it? Are you thinking that if you know a bunch of things about Jesus that's the same thing as worshiping him?" That's the first rebuke.

The second rebuke is that I have a little of Herod's heart in me, and I'm thinking you might, too. Not that you're out to kill Christ, but you can't both sit on the throne and have Jesus there as well. You can't both rule over your life and have Jesus ruling over it as well. You can't be the possessor of your possessions and have Jesus as the possessor of them, too. It's one or the other, not both. In our hearts we often set up Jesus as a rival of our kingdom. We say, "You can rule as long as it's okay with me and you don't encroach upon areas that I've decided are my domain."

I'm stunned how many people in the church will go into a sexual relationship outside of marriage. As I probe those stories, I find there's a sense of, "Somehow I'm the exception here. Jesus isn't on the throne on this one." I'm stunned by the low level of giving within the American church. I'm stunned how much we've said to Jesus, "I'm lord of this, thank you. I'll call you if I need you." I'm stunned. Except I'm not, because I have a little of Herod's heart too, which says, "Jesus, I will be in charge unless I say otherwise, and then I'll let you be in charge unless you're not doing a good job, and then I'll take charge again."

Something about Herod is, he got it. For all his depravity, for all his malice, for all of the narrowness and bitterness and paranoia, the guy got it. He understood, you can't both be a king and have him king. You can't both be on the throne and have him on the throne. It's not going to work. It's one or the other, so I will destroy my rival. Most of us try to work out some kind of coalition. Let's not go there.


It's interesting—for all those things I said about Herod, he gives the best piece of advice in the story: "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report, that I might go and worship as well." He's lying. He's not going to worship; he's going to go with a dagger hidden in his cloak. But that's good advice. It's an odd thing to take a bad man's words and say, "Church, would you heed him on this one?" But I'm going to anyway. Would you pay attention to what Herod is saying here? Go and make a careful search for Christ. If you're steeped in truth but it's been a while since you did something with it, then go and make a careful search. If you're steeped in some confusing ideas about the divine, or you know someone who is, I wouldn't be all twisted up about getting their theology corrected first. I would get them to Jesus. Go and make a careful search of the child. Because it's in seeing Christ that our theology suddenly comes clear. And as you go out and look for Christ, for the man, this king that was born, that lives, that exists, that reveals his glory—as you find him, tsell others, that they might worship too. It's good advice, isn't it?

If it's five miles away, go. If it's a hundred miles away, go. Go and make a careful search for this child, and when you find him, worship him and tell others, that they might worship as well. He is the one worthy of the long journey. He is the one that satisfies the hunch you might have about the meaning of life. He is the one who lights and makes alive the truth that you know. He's the one worthy of all the gifts you might give him; gold, incense, whatever precious thing you've got, give it. He's worthy of it. He's the one that if it calls for it, defy a king for his sake, which is what these men do. He's the one for whose sake it's worth taking the long way home, which is what they do. They will inconvenience themselves however they must for the sake of Christ. Because this is Christ the Lord. Unto you a Savior has been born, unto you a king has been given.

To see an outline of Buchanan's sermon, click here.

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.

Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.

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Sermon Outline:


People who meet Christ generally fall into two categories: those whom Christ just surprises one day, and those who start a journey that may take years to finish.

I. The wise men eagerly searched for Christ.

II. God will do everything he can to help us find him.

III. The people least in possession of the truth were most passionately in pursuit of it.

IV. God's people failed to act on the truth they possessed.

V. Herod knew he couldn't share the throne with Christ.


Go and make a careful search for the Christ child, and when you find him, worship him and tell others, that they might worship as well.