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Christmas in the Carols: O Come All Ye Faithful

Matthew 2:1-12

Kids are wonderful and we learn so much from them! I heard about two little boys named Sam and Ben. They had been a pain in the neck to their mother. She was at the end of her patience, particularly with Sam, the older boy, who seemed always to lead little Ben into devilment. So she sent Sam down to see their preacher to talk about his behavior. The preacher must have been a Presbyterian, because all Presbyterian preachers seem to have an innate ability to cloud even the clearest of concepts! In any case, this preacher sat Sam down across the desk, leaned over to him, looked him square in the eye and said: “Sam, where is God?” Sam looked around the office, up on the bookshelves, out the window and didn’t see Him, so he didn’t say anything. The preacher repeated the question: “Where is God?” Sam was buffaloed by the whole thing so he stayed clammed up. Finally, the exasperated preacher said: “I give up. Just go on home, Sam.” So Sam ran home, up the stairs to his brother’s room and said: “Ben, we’re in big trouble. God is missing and they think we had something to do with it!” Well, if God is missing in our hearts or our lives or our families at Christmas, then we had everything to do with it. That’s the theme for our consideration today.

It is known as “the carol that breaks all the rules.” There is no consistency in the length of the lines of the stanzas. The first note of the melody is not used for stanzas two and three. The lines of the carol make no attempt to rhyme final sounds. The phrasing throughout the carol is awkward and irregular. No reputable music publishers today would accept such a mess for publication. Yet it would be difficult to imagine Christmas without being able to sing the resounding chords of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” In fact, it is probably the most widely sung of all the Christmas carols, as it has been translated into more than 100 different languages throughout the world.

But I want us to focus now on one verse of the carol which, ironically, we never sing. For some reason, this verse never appears in our modern readings of the carol. It was originally inserted between what we know as the second and third stanzas and here are the words:

Lo, star-led chieftains, Magi, Christ adoring,
Offering Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
We to the Christ Child bring our hearts’ oblation,
O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

What a shame that we omit that verse because the theme of this carol—the adoration of the Christ Child—is best exemplified by those Magi, those Wise Men, those star-led chieftains of old. I think I can best make the case by addressing with you the question: Why were the Wise Men wise?

They were wise, first of all, because they had the right gumption.

They had the right resolve. They had the right priorities. They had the right determination. They had the right perseverance. They were tireless. They were indefatigable. They had a clear perception of what they were going to do and they would not be diverted or distracted from doing it. To put it simply, they were willing to do anything to see Jesus.

Remember, please, that they set off on a long and arduous journey to find this newborn King. We know, for example, that Herod’s command to kill all the boy babies under two years of age was based upon how long the Wise Men told him they had been searching for Jesus. So these Magi didn’t take off on a weekend trip. They didn’t just throw a change of clothes in an overnight bag and hop on their trusty camels! They set out on a pilgrimage which required up to two years time and an incalculable amount of sacrifice. They were determined. They were diligent. They had the right gumption. There was something within them that would not let them stop until they saw this child. They believed that God had come to this earth in human form and they wouldnot be satisfied until they could see it for themselves. Nothing could stop them from seeing Jesus and bowing before Him.

Reminds me of Jeremiah 29:13. Remember that verse? God says “You will seek me and you will find me because you seek me with”…what? With all your Sunday mornings? No! With your five-minute devotional every day? No! With your occasional good deeds? No! “You will seek me and you will find me because you seek me with all your heart.” Those Wise Men sought Jesus and they found Jesus because they sought Jesus with all their hearts. Nothing could stop them.

I think of the story told about a young man who approached the old country preacher and said to him: “Preacher, I’d like to become a follower of Jesus. How do I do that?” The preacher said: “Come on, I’ll take you down to the river.” The young man assumed that he was going to be baptized. They walked out into the water. The preacher grabbed hold of this young fellow and submerged him and then held him there. He kept him under the water. The seconds passed. Pretty soon, the young fellow began threshing his arms and legs in a desperate scramble for air. Finally, the preacher let him up. The young man sputtering and gasping for air, cried out: “What were you trying to do? Kill me?” The old preacher replied: “You told me you wanted to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Well, I want to tell you something, you will see Jesus when you crave for Him the way you were just craving for air.”

I wonder, if I were to ask you what you want most for Christmas, how many of you would say, “I want to see Jesus”? I believe that the single most important consideration for us at Christmas is the intensity of that desire. As someone has said: “Jesus Christ is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.” You see, Jesus Christ, calls us not to a religion, but to a relationship. It’s not a habit, but a hunger. It’s not something we do as a pastime, but something which consumes us. Jesus Christ is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance in your life. The Wise Men would stop at nothing just to see Him. They had the right gumption. “O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”

And the Wise Men were wise, also, because they had the right gifts.

The three gifts noted for us in the Gospel of Matthew were the right gifts because they declared the right message. In those days, there were three sources of authority and power in life. One was the king. The king ruled over the people with absolute power and authority. He was the ultimate in political power. The symbol for the king was gold. The second most authoritative and powerful voice belonged to the high priest. Nearly all religions in that day had a high priest as the ultimate in spiritual power. The symbol for the high priest was frankincense. A third source of power and authority was that of sacrifice. Every culture of that day used sacrifice, in one form or another, to obtain divine power and moral authority. The symbol of sacrifice was myrrh, the substance used in embalming the dead. Therefore, the gifts of the Wise Men were declaring that Jesus is everything in power and authority. He is the King of kings. He is the High Priest of high priests. He is the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate access to God.

We, too, must acknowledge Jesus as King, as Commander, as Ruler in our everyday lives. You see, Jesus has to be King in our lives before He can be Friend in our lives. Lord Nelson, the great English admiral, was known for the courtesy and compassion he would show toward defeated enemies. Once after a fierce and massive sea battle, the defeated admiral appeared before Lord Nelson to surrender; however, he decided he would try to take deadly advantage of Lord Nelson’s well-known sense of kindness. So he came striding across the deck toward Lord Nelson with his hand extended as if to shake hands. Nelson barked out the command: “Stop where you are! First, give me your sword, then I shall take your hand.” My beloved, we must first surrender to the authority of Jesus in our lives, then we can be His friend and He can be ours.

And we, too, must acknowledge Jesus as High Priest, as the source of spiritual power in our lives. A high priest is the mediator between God and humankind, and the perfect high priest would be someone who was in fact both God and man. That’s exactly who Jesus is—the perfect mediator. He is our salvation. Drop everything and run for Christ. Like when a tornado comes ripping down the street! You can’t postpone a decision. You can’t procrastinate. Don’t let the invitation go unanswered. The greatest moment in history has come and is moving forward toward its conclusion. Open up! This is not an Avon salesperson at the door of your heart! It’s the Son of God. Open your heart to Him.

And we, too, must acknowledge Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice. Do you remember the story from Genesis, Chapter 22? It’s the story of Abraham and Isaac. No one ever wanted a child more than did Abraham and his wife, Sarah. At long last a child was born. Abraham called him Isaac. Then some years later, there came an astonishing directive from God. God said: “Abraham, take your only son, whom you love, and sacrifice him.” Abraham, who was always obedient to God no matter how much it hurt, took Isaac out to the hill called Moriah. There he built an altar and gathered wood for the fire. Isaac then asked: “Father, where is the lamb we are to sacrifice?” Can you imagine how blurry Isaac must have looked through Abraham’s tear-filled eyes? Abraham said: “God will provide.” He then bound his son with ropes and placed him on the altar. With his heart breaking into a million pieces, he lifted his knife, ready to plunge it home—only then at the last instant to be stopped by the angel. That’s a shadowy premonition of what would happen 2000 years later. God would bind up his only Son, not with ropes, but with bones and flesh, and lay Him upon the altar of sacrifice. Only this time the death blow would not be withheld. The Son would die for you and for me—the ultimate sacrifice.

Somehow, those Wise Men were wise enough to see that Jesus was king, high priest and sacrifice—that Jesus would not just live for them, but die for them as well. We should be so wise. “O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”

And those Wise Men were wise, lastly, because they had the right goal.

They simply wanted to worship Him. They didn’t demand anything of Him. They made no requests. They delivered no ultimatum. They put forth no plan of action. They didn’t even have a prayer list! They simply said: “We want to bow in your presence.”

There is a beautiful story recounted every Christmas in the forests of Provence in southern France. It’s about four shepherds who came to Bethlehem to see the Child. One brought eggs, another brought bread and cheese, the third brought wine. The fourth brought nothing at all. People called him L’Enchanteur. The first three shepherds chatted amiably with Mary and Joseph, congratulated the proud parents, commented about the beautiful star-lit night, presented them their gifts and assured them that if they needed anything else, they had only to ask. Finally, someone asked: “Where is L’Enchanteur?” They searched high and low and could not find him. Then someone peeked into the creche. There, kneeling at the crib, was L’Enchanteur—the Enchanted One. Throughout the long night, he stayed in adoration, whispering: “Jesu, Jesu, Jesu—Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” All he wanted to do was to worship and adore.

I walked, one white hot day in July, southwest from Jerusalem, the six miles to Bethlehem. I stopped along the way at the point where you can look out toward the distant horizon. The hills at that point seemed to form a saddle. Down in the curve of that saddle nestled, the little town of Bethlehem. I walked on into town, up to the Manger Square, to what is called the Church of the Nativity. In the year 150 AD, Justin Martyr designated that location as the spot where Jesus was born, and in the year 300, Constantine built over the spot a cathedral which stands to this day. There is one thing quite remarkable about the Church of the Nativity. In order to enter the church and see the spot where Jesus was born, you have to bow. You have to humble yourself. You can’t just walk in. You see, the entrance is so low that you have to bend over and bow in order to get in.

Isn’t that appropriate? When we would remember the birth of Jesus, the first thing we would do would be to bow down. O come, let us adore Him, born the King of angels, O come, let us adore Him. Christ, our Lord…

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