Sermons

The Battle of the Sexes – Esther 1:10-22

Esther 1:10-22

As always, let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Esther 1. We started a new sermon series last week, and most of the sermon was background information. It was more teaching than preaching, but, of course, whenever you begin a new study sometimes that’s required. We’ll be reading Esther 1:10-22.

He began playing tennis seriously at the age of 12. By the time he was 21, he was ranked no. 1 in the world and considered a rising star. In 1946, 1947, and 1949 he as the U.S. national professional singles championships. Many thought he was the best tennis player that ever lived, and many admired his grace and athleticism. But it was his derision and eventual humiliation that firmly fixed Bobby Rigg’s fame.

In 1973, within the milieu of the women’s liberation movement, Riggs proclaimed, “Any half-decent male player could defeat even the best female player.” In a media extravaganza, Bobby Riggs, age 55, came out of retirement to play against the top female of the day, Billie Jean King. The match was dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes,” and 30,472 fans crammed into the old Houston Astrodome while an estimated 50 million people watched on television.

It didn’t last long. In 3 straight sets, Billie Jean King defeated the boastful Riggs. Despite her victory, it didn’t settle much. In the opening chapter of Esther, an unplanned battle of the sexes occurred, also. Let’s see whether it settled anything:

10 On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, 11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at. 12 But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. At this the king became enraged, and his anger burned within him.

13 Then the king said to the wise men who knew the times (for this was the king’s procedure toward all who were versed in law and judgment, 14 the men next to him being Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who saw the king’s face, and sat first in the kingdom): 15 “According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti, because she has not performed the command of King Ahasuerus delivered by the eunuchs?” 16 Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, “Not only against the king has Queen Vashti done wrong, but also against all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. 17 For the queen’s behavior will be made known to all women, causing them to look at their husbands with contempt, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ 18 This very day the noble women of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will say the same to all the king’s officials, and there will be contempt and wrath in plenty. 19 If it please the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be repealed, that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus. And let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. 20 So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, for it is vast, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.” 21 This advice pleased the king and the princes, and the king did as Memucan proposed. 22 He sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, that every man be master in his own household and speak according to the language of his people.

“Gracious God, we pray for Your help as we turn to this ancient book, as very 21st-century people, that You will help us to ask the question “What?” concerning its content, “So what?” concerning its implications, and “Now what?” concerning our follow-through, so that we might increasingly become the people that we believe ourselves to be – at least want to be – and that Jesus might be everything in us and through us. For it’s in His name that we pray. Amen.”

It was 10 o’clock in the evening when the 1,200 guests began to arrive on March 10, 1883. They were coming to the home of William and Alva Vanderbilt, which was located at 660 5th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan – a residence known as the Petit Chateau. It was on the northwest corner of 5th Avenue and 52nd Street, across the street from William’s parent’s home known as the Triple Palace – a residence that occupied the entire block between 51st and 52nd Streets on the west side of 5th Avenue.

William and Alva had not been allowed to be part of New York City society. At that time, Caroline Astor was the head of NY City’s elite, a group known as “The 400.” And Caroline Astor didn’t think that wealth that had been earned, as had the Vanderbilt’s, was as prominent as wealth that had been inherited. In fact, she found railroad money distasteful. Well, Alva decided that she would beat Mrs. Astor at her own game, and so she threw a masquerade ball – whose chief impact was to raise the bar on social entertainment in NY to heights of extravagance and expense that had not been previously seen.

The night was unbelievable. They ate dinner at 2 o’clock in the morning. Little late, don’t you think. They even hired the chefs from the famous Delmonico restaurant. They feasted and danced the night away, and the party ended the next morning around 7 o’clock. The ball had an estimated cost of around $6 million dollars.

Now, you take that and round it up to the 10th power, and you have the party that King Ahasuerus threw. Instead of an 8–9-hour party, you stretch it out over 6 months. You’ve heard of the G7; this was the G127. King Ahasuerus had invited 127 rulers and nobles and generals from the vast Persian Empire, and the only law, the only rule, the only edict for this party was “there is no compulsion” (v. 8). Basically, it was drink as much as you want. Eat as much as you want. Party as much as you want. And in that environment, there was no mention of God, no thinking about God, no prophet came to the front (like Daniel), no priest stands up, no man of God offers a word or a message, and we see the first thing that happens when God isn’t a part of our lives.

Diminished Discernment

In the case of King Ahasuerus, it seems apparent that he went for “as much as you like.” It’s difficult to read the next verses without acknowledging the fact that his judgment seems impaired by the alcohol in his system. Because here, in a display of his pride and his bravado, he issues a command for the presence of his queen. And we’re told that the reason that he wanted to do this, in verse 11, was “in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at.” And so, it’s very important to understand this – this is not a nice husband saying, “We’re having a lovely time up here in the men’s grill, and we would love for you just to come down and meet the fellas before they all go home.” It’s not like that at all. No. This is Mr. Big. For Xerxes, bigger is better. Everything is an indication of his majesty and his might and his significance. And so, he says to his servants, “Go down and bring the queen up here. Make sure she has her crown.” What he’s planning on doing is a show-and-tell for his friends. But it’s not just any old show-and-tell.

Some commentaries suggest that there’s a distinct possibility that when it actually says that she should come “with her royal crown,” that that was all she was to come with. Listen to what Chuck Swindoll says. Nobody says it quite like Chuck Swindoll. He writes, “In the midst of an unsavory scene she was brave enough to say ‘No.’ Submission does not mean that a wife is a sexual pawn in the carnal desires of her husband. It was never God’s design that a wife submits to her husband’s evil desires. In King Ahasuerus’ case this took the form of desiring to display her before those who would have nothing in mind but lust. What he asked was not submission, but sexual slavery.” So, in other words, he was breaking the bounds of propriety in every way – whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. But there’s a picture of the depravity of man’s mind apart from God.

But this didn’t just happen in an instant. This wasn’t an accident. There’s a progression here, and I want us to see it. See if you think this is accurate. First of all, we’re told that his condition (v. 10) was that it was “on the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine.” That’s shorthand, obviously for “he was drunk.” He then issues his edict, sends for his wife, she refuses to come, and his reaction at the end of verse 12 is that he “became enraged, and his anger burned within him.” And if you’ve read all of Esther, then you know that this is something of a recurring pattern for this fellow. In Esther 7:7 – a different context mind you, but still the same guy – we read, “And the king arose in his wrath from the wine-drinking.” See, there’s a correlation here between his intake and his output. His condition: the wine had gone to his head. His reaction: he lost his temper. He was enraged. It’s a bad combination: a big ego, an inordinate interest in alcohol, and a quick temper.

It’s an unfortunate reality – one that we can be forgiven of, of course – but many of us have learned the hard way just how, in a moment of foolish passion, you can alter your life forever? He was “merry with wine.” He was mad that his wife refused his request. He listened to some bad counsel, and he took some actions that would have devastating effects. Diminished discernment, and that leads to diminished dominance.

Diminished Dominance

This is a man who dominated the world. He rules the world’s armies. He’s going to attack Greece with somewhere between 500,000-1,000,000 men, and an entire navy. He’s dominated Egypt. Twice, he defeated Babylon. He’ll eventually defeat Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae, but not before losing almost 150,000 men to the 300 Spartans that held the pass. If you’ve seen the movie The 300, this is that battle. This guy is a man of power. This guy has dominated everybody, but watch how his power diminishes. It begins in verse 15. King Ahasuerus turns to his advisors, turns to his wise men, turns to his counselors and asks, “According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti, because she has not performed the command of King Ahasuerus delivered by the eunuchs?”

Now, listen, there’s nothing wrong with seeking the advice and counsel of others. In fact, the Bible says that we should seek input from others. Proverbs 11:14 says, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” Proverbs 12:15 says, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” And Proverbs 15:22 says, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” So, there’s nothing wrong with seeking counsel. The question is: What are the qualifications of those that you deem to be your counselors? Seeking advice is fine, but what kind of advice are you getting? Is it godly, or is it secular? Is it wise and biblical, or is it feel-good and trendy? Look at the advice that’s given to him. It begins in verse 16 and continues through verse 19:

Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, “Not only against the king has Queen Vashti done wrong, but also against all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will be made known to all women, causing them to look at their husbands with contempt, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ This very day the noble women of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will say the same to all the king’s officials, and there will be contempt and wrath in plenty. If it please the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be repealed, that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus. And let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she.

That’s funny and sad, all at the same time. You know, there are a lot of things that the Bible doesn’t tell us. I wish the Bible told us how things went when Memucan got home.

[Wife] “Hey honey, how was the business conference at the king’s palace?”

[Memucan] “Oh, it was great. I got to help craft some new legislation for the empire.”

[Wife] “Really, that’s wonderful. What’s it about?”

[Memucan] “What’s what about?”

[Wife] “The legislation – what does it address?”

[Memucan] “Oh, marital relationships. But honey it won’t impact us ‘cause you’re so great.”

[Wife] “That’s great. Hey dear, could you come here and give me a hand. I have a load of laundry that needs to be folded.”

[Memucan] “Sure thing, honey, anything for you, dear.”

King Ahasuerus goes from dominating on the battlefield to being dominated on the home front. He takes the wrong advice and ends up deposing his very own wife – the queen. Now, listen, for those of you who find your pro-feminist juices rising let me just say: be careful. This book, in 21st-century Western culture, has become a pro-feminist tract. There’s no question here that we can say that Queen Vashti is a woman before her time. But if we were to think for a minute that the reason that this detail is in here is in order that we might advance that cause of women, then we’d go wrong.

No. Something is going to happen in the empire, and the Jews are going to be threatened with extermination, and God needs a person in a position of influence and authority to save His people. And out of the stupidity of men, who plot with fleshly minds, they just opened the door for Esther. Gemini Cricket, that’s good stuff. Don’t tell me God’s not behind the scenes always working, even in the midst of a pagan agenda.

You see, some of us are so stuck on the idea that God ought to be doing miraculous, supreme, engaging, transformative, manifest interventions. And we miss the fact that there is as much providence in the crawling of a spider up a wall as there is in the unfolding drama that is contained here in the book of Esther. Dora Greenwell was an English poet. One of her poems was set to music by William J. Kirkpatrick, and in 2006 a contemporary version of that song was sung by Aaron Shust. It contains the following phrase:

I am not skilled to understand
What God has willed, what God has planned;
I only know at His right hand
Stands One who is my Savior.

Loved ones, that’s security. That’s biblical theology. That’s not some superficial, feel-good notion. That’s through the dangers, through the toils, through the snares, when I see through a glass darkly, when the waves overwhelm me, when I find myself set aside on the ventures of life, there’s a ton of stuff I don’t know, and I’m not skilled to understand it, and I’m not even supposed to understand it. But I understand this: that at God’s right hand I have a Savior. And if you don’t have that, then you need that. Because what’s our only hope in life and in death? That we’re not our own but belong body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior, Jesus Christ.

O gracious God, we thank You for the Bible and for the opportunity to study it together, to read it on our own, and to ponder these things. There are many of us and our lives seem to mirror Esther 1 – no mention of God. We go to work, we go to school, we volunteer, we play golf and travel with our friends, we do all of the things that make up our day, but You’re not mentioned. Father, forgive us. Help us to realize that we constantly live in the presence of the King of kings and Lord of lords. Look upon us in Your mercy, we pray. And thank You that we can be confident that even when we are unable to understand many of the details – when we don’t understand Your hand, as it were – that we can trust Your heart. May the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be our portion, today and forever. Amen.

When God Tells A Story – Esther 1:1-9

Esther 1:1-9

I want to invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to the Old Testament book of Esther. The easiest way to find Esther is to go to Psalms, then back up two (2) books. She’s the last of the historical books.

One of the delightful things about becoming a grandparent, so I’m told, is that you’re able to go back and read some of your favorite bedtime stories all over again. You thought that the day was long past when you could snuggle up to somebody and begin, “Once upon a time…” And there is something quite wonderful, isn’t there, about that little introductory phrase – opening up before us vistas, and discoveries, the unfolding drama that’s contained in whatever book we’re holding.

Well, here, as we come to Esther, we might begin by saying, “Once upon a time there was a beautiful Jewish girl who became the queen of Persia.” That’s actually the story. It’s a kind of Cinderella story – not quite rags to riches, but certainly a radical transformation in the life of this young Jewish girl. It’s a story that’s set against the backdrop of an attempt led by one man, an evil villain by the name of Haman, to try and exterminate the Jewish population from the Persian Empire. And this true story begins this way:

1 Now in the days of Ahasuerus, the Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over 127 provinces, 2 in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in Susa, the citadel, 3 in the third year of his reign he gave a feast for all his officials and servants. The army of Persia and Media and the nobles and governors of the provinces were before him, 4 while he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for many days, 180 days. 5 And when these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in Susa the citadel, both great and small, a feast lasting for seven days in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. 6 There were white cotton curtains and violet hangings fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rods and marble pillars, and also couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl, and precious stones. 7 Drinks were served in golden vessels, vessels of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. 8 And drinking was according to this edict: “There is no compulsion.” For the king had given orders to all the staff of his palace to do as each man desired. 9 Queen Vashti also gave a feast for the women in the palace that belonged to King Ahasuerus.

“Our God and our Father, we pray now for your help, as we typically do, because we need it – for me to able to speak clearly, for the church to be able to listen, and for us all that we might understand and obey your Word, and that we might live in the light of its truth. And so, beyond the voice of a mere man, may we hear from You, the living God, for it’s in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, that we pray. Amen.”

I don’t want to spend too much time, this morning, in the classroom, but if we don’t cover just a little bit of history, then we’ll be struggling to understand the place of Esther and what’s going on. So, let me take us back to World History 101.

Not counting the nation of Israel and the Jewish people, the Persian Empire was the fourth greatest empire to arise in the ancient world – Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. There were others, of course, but these were the main players. And the Persians ruled over Palestine for some two hundred years. So, we’re talking about the period of Jewish history after kings Saul, David and Solomon. You remember the Kingdom of Israel split into the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom. The Assyrians capture the north, and later the Babylonians capture the south. We read about all of this in 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles.

Well, Cyrus the Great comes along and the Persian Empire (a.k.a. Achaemenid Empire) rises in power, and they defeat the Babylonians. Cyrus has a daughter named Atossa. She would marry a guy by the name of Darius (a.k.a. Darius the Great) and they would have a son named Xerxes (a.k.a. Ahasuerus). Just so you know, when you bump into the books of Daniel or Ezra or Nehemiah, or the prophets Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi, then you’ll discover that they all relate to this particular period in time. Okay, enough history for one day.

Esther is one of only two books in the Bible that is named after a woman. The other one, of course, as you know, is Ruth. And in Ruth we’re given a glimpse of the domestic life of a village, if you like. We’re given a glimpse of life lived under God in the context of poverty, of eking out an existence. And here, in the book of Esther, we’re at the opposite end of the social spectrum. Here, we’re taken into the grandeur and extravagance of the royal palace of king Ahasuerus (a.k.a. Xerxes).

And if you are not already nudging the person next to you and saying this, it probably will come somewhere along the line, so I might as well address it. You, or your spouse, or neighbor, or the stranger sitting next to you is thinking, “What possible relevance is there in spending our time, as modern, educated 21st century folk, digging into the events that were taking place 2,500 years ago in Persia (what is modern-day Iran)?” And, of course, that’s a good question. That’s the question that any sensible person should be asking.

The Big Picture

And part of the answer is because it’s part of the bigger picture. You say, “Well, now, what’s that supposed to mean?” Part of the reason we’re studying Esther is because it’s part of the Bible – God’s living and inspired Word – and it’s in this bigger story that we see the full plan of God. Listen to how Paul explains a similar question to the Romans, “For whatever was written in former days (i.e. the days of Ahasuerus the king of Persia) was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).

Stuart Townend and Mark Edwards wrote a worship song called There Is a Hope, and one of the sections of that song says, “There is a hope that stands the test of time, that lifts my eyes beyond the beckoning grave, to see the matchless beauty of a day divine when I behold His face!” There’s a hope. Where’s it found? Ultimately, in Jesus Christ, “For in Him,” says Peter, “[we’re] born again to a living hope [by] the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). So, when we read an ancient account like Esther, it’s absolutely vital that we’re aware of the fact that God is working everything out according to a unified plan of His own, beginning in eternity and moving to eternity.

So, we stand way back now from Esther – we’re not even touching Esther for the moment – and we say, “Now, we’re going to read this book that has to do with this evil villain called Haman, a little Jewish guy called Mordecai, beautiful girl called Esther, and an egotistical rascal called Ahasuerus. And before we delve into the details of this, what do we need to know?” Well, we need to know that God, the Author of the book and the One who has retained all the details for our consideration, has a unified plan in all of history, and His plan is ultimately to unite all things in and through the work of His Son, Jesus.

So, all of that to make this point: that the pictures and the promises and the symbols of the Old Testament are all to be understood as pointing to the fulfillment of God’s plan. For example, we’re going to discover that our evil villain Haman has a desire to kill all the Jews. Now, see, if he’s successful in that attempt, then there’s no Jesus, because Jesus was Jewish. So, what is happening in the book of Esther is that God is preserving His people, because it’s out of those people that His Messiah is going to come. Therefore, He’s going to make sure that in the details that appear on the canvas, He has His people in position. Because, as Jesus explained to the lady at the well, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).

Part of the reason we’re studying Esther is because she’s just another small detail in an overarching story that culminates with our Savior, Jesus Christ.

The Big Question

Secondly, not only do we need to get the big picture, but we need to face the big question. What’s the big question? Well, if you haven’t read the book, you won’t know, but if you’ve started to read it, you might have an idea. And the question is this: Where’s God? Where’s God? The book of Esther isn’t simply one of two books written to women, but it’s also one of two books in which there’s no mention of the name of God. Little quiz; what’s the other book that doesn’t mention the name of God? (Song of Solomon.) The name of God never appears in the book of Esther. There are no titles for God. There are no personal pronouns that refer to God. There aren’t any names like Jehovah-Jireh, El Elyon, Adonai, Yahweh, nothing. Listen, nothing, absolutely, completely void of the name of God. And that’s why there’s been such a struggle through the centuries to incorporate the book of Esther into the cannon of Scripture.

Well, why would God not want His name to appear in the book? Well, maybe to teach us something. Teach us what? Well, to teach us at least this: that in the events of life when God is apparently absent, He’s not. Listen, we don’t have to add His name to everything to explain His presence. He’s omnipresent. You don’t have to say, “God did this, and God did that, and God told me the next thing.” One of the things this supposed dilemma makes clear is this: God isn’t just present in the lightning bolts – in the passage of the Red Sea; in the crossing of the Jordan; in the calming of the wind and the waves. He’s not only present there, but He’s present in the humdrum of life. In the everyday events of life, God is working out His purposes. So, although God’s name doesn’t appear all the time, He’s working.

You’ll find as you read through the story that He’s at work in the refusal of this Persian queen to her husband’s demands. He’s at work in the sleep patterns of the king. There’s an amazing bit in this story where the joker can’t sleep. And then what he reads! Of all the things he could have read, he reads this one thing. I mean, it’s a great story. You have to read this. Although His name doesn’t appear, God is overruling in the hatred of Haman. God hasn’t programmed Haman to hate. But that’s what Haman does – he hates Mordecai. He hates these Jewish people. That’s what he is: he’s a hateful person. Yet, God is present even though His name isn’t mentioned.

Charles Spurgeon has a lovely little section about the absence of God in a sermon that he preached titled Providence – As Seen In the Book of Esther. He says, “Although the name of God does not occur in the Book of Esther, the Lord Himself is there most conspicuously in every incident which it relates.” And then, using a metaphor, Spurgeon says, “I’ve seen portraits bearing the names of persons for whom they were intended, and they certainly needed them.” Some of you have family pictures from decades ago or perhaps over a century ago, and when you’re thumbing through the old photo album somebody says, “Who in the world is that?” And so, you have to decide, do you put Aunt Penelope’s name on it, because there’s no way anybody in the world would look at that and go, “Oh, that must be your Aunt Penelope.” So that’s what Spurgeon says. He says, “I’ve seen portraits, and the name at the bottom is really important, ’cause otherwise you wouldn’t have a clue who it was.” Then he says, “But we have all seen others which required no name, because they were such striking likenesses that the moment you looked upon them you knew them.” And God takes His name out of the book of Esther so that the moment that we look into Esther, again and again and again we say, “That’s God. That’s God. That’s God.” When God appears to be most absent in your life, trust me, He’s at work.

The Big Idea

We have the Big Picture, the Big Question, and finally, the Big Idea. What’s the big idea? Well, the big idea is the doctrine of providence – the biblical notion that God, with wisdom and love, cares for and directs all things in the universe. The doctrine of divine providence asserts that God is in complete control of all things. There are many verses that support this doctrine, but the most famous and loved is Romans 8:28, which says, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” And one of the most obvious Bible stories that illustrates this doctrine is the story of Joseph (in the Old Testament).

God never fails to meet His people’s needs. He knew that His people were facing starvation. He knew that He would need somebody in a position in Egypt to deal with the starvation problem, and He had the perfect man. But what a strange and convoluted way to get Joseph to such a position of power! His life, incidentally, was marked by him telling dreams in the morning, which ticked his brothers off. His life was marked by the fact that his father doted on him the way you might dote on a small black French bulldog. He gave him clothes that he never gave his brothers. His brothers hated him. They flung him in a pit. He was rescued from the pit and sold into slavery. He was on the receiving end of abuse and scorn. He ended up in jail. And through all of these things, he finally ends up saying, classically – at the end of Genesis 50 – when his brothers finally show up, he says, “Hey, guys, I know you’re upset about this. You intended all this stuff for evil, but God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20, paraphrased). What was God doing? He was fulfilling His plan, a unified plan for all of history.

And when we go through this book of Esther, we’re going to discover that God is placing his servants in the right spot for the right task at the right moment. We’re going to discover that he uses and arranges even the smallest events to achieve the greatest results. God’s providence is such that nothing escapes His notice, nothing happens without His permission. Even the worst things that will happen to us in our lives will turn out ultimately for our good. Do you believe that?

See, the real test of our doctrine of providence is not in the opening phrase of the song It Is Well: “When peace like a river attendeth my way.” That’s an easy one. It’s a nice day, feeling good, just got the blood test back, came back negative, none of my kids are in jail, my wife is still living with me. It’s a great day in the neighborhood. Me and Mr. Rogers, we’re perfectly contented. “When peace like a river attendeth my way.” Okay, let’s go to the other side: “When sorrows like sea billows roll.” That’s the test of providence. That’s where we’re either gonna take God at His Word and trust Him that He’s involved in the details – that nothing is out of control, nothing will get out of control – or we won’t.

Let me finish with this poem, and then we’ll sing a song. You know this poem, don’t you?

My life is but a weaving
Between my Lord and me.
I cannot choose the colors
He weaveth steadily.

Oft’ times He weaveth sorrow;
And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the underside.

Not ’til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Will God unroll the canvas
And reveal the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

He knows, He loves, He cares;
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives the very best to those
Who leave the choice to Him.

The Big Picture: from Genesis to Revelation and every book in between, the focus is upon God’s redeeming and saving a people for Himself. The Big Question: although God’s name isn’t mentioned, there’s no doubt He’s the author of this story and He’s the author of yours and mine, too. The Big Idea: we only see the links in the chain, God sees the end from the beginning.

Father, some of us are in the midst of deep darkness and stuff that seeks to almost overwhelm us. We’re not riding down the lazy river on the Sunday afternoon, rather we feel like we’re taking on water at an unbelievable rate. And we pray that You will help us to hear Your Word, which says, “Cast your burdens upon the Lord, and He will sustain you” (Psalm 55:22) to run into the refuge that is available to us in the Lord Jesus Christ; to find ourselves wrapped up in the embrace of His goodness, so that even when life has plunged us in its deepest pit, we may discover the Savior there. So, to this end we commend one another to you. May the grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God our Father, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be the abiding portion of all who believe, today and forevermore. Amen.

The Gift of Jesus – Romans 5:12-17

Romans 5:12-17

Well, Christmas has once again come and gone, and we’ve come to that time of the season when we begin to take decorations down and clean things up. And it’s also that time of the year when we generally stumble across that lost or forgotten Christmas present – the one we tucked a little too far behind the tree, or the one we left in the hallway closet where we stored the side table that we moved to make room for the tree, or the gift card that was hiding in plain sight among the other Christmas greeting cards. I always seem to overlook a gift – not on purpose mind you – but with all of the excitement of exchanging gifts and opening gifts, and the chaos of wrapping paper, and second helpings of dinner, and everything else, somebody’s gift accidentally goes missing. That’s what I want us to consider this morning, as we conclude this series on The Gifts of Christmas.

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Romans 5. For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about the gifts that were brought to Jesus by the magi, the wise men. And we described who they were, where they came from, what their background was, and why they were important in the ancient world. And then we focused on a gift each week.

We focused on the gold that was given, and we saw that it was emblematic of Jesus coming to be the King of kings and Lord of lords. They actually said, “We have come to find the One who has been born the King of the Jews.” They were looking for a King and they brought a gift fit for a king; and that’s, gold. Then we considered frankincense and discovered that it was emblematic of the priesthood and the spiritual work of the priests in the tabernacle and the temple. And we saw how Jesus was our Great High Priest, and how the gift of frankincense foreshadowed and fulfilled that prophecy. And then last Sunday we looked at myrrh. We saw that it was used for perfuming, and beautification, and also as a pain killer, but it’s principal use was as an embalming agent. That, of course, was symbolic of what Jesus would do in His sacrificial death for us. So, we considered the gifts.

But today, I want to talk about THE gift (singular), not the gifts (plural) – the gift of salvation that comes through the person of Jesus Christ given to humanity by God. Hopefully, you’ve found your spot in Romans 5:12-17 (or you can always follow along on the screen).

One more brief comment before we read the sacred text of Scripture together. Normally, I read from and rely upon the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible in my preaching and teaching. It beautifully blends good, contemporary English with reverence and accuracy to the original text, and it’s the version that you hear me read each week – except today. Today, I’m going to be reading from the New Living Translation, because this is one of those rare texts of Scripture where even the ESV can be a little difficult to follow. So, follow along with me:

12 When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. 13 Yes, people sinned even before the law was given. But it was not counted as sin because there was not yet any law to break. 14 Still, everyone died – from the time of Adam to the time of Moses – even those who did not disobey an explicit commandment of God, as Adam did. Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. 15 But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and His gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. 16 And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. 17 For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and His gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.

“Father, as we turn to the Bible, before we turn to Your table, we pray that You will meet with us. Grant that we might hear Your voice, that You will stir us by way of pure remembrance of what is true of the Christian, and that You will stir in the hearts of those who wonder and seek to lay hold of all Your great and precious promises made available to us in Your Son, the Lord, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.”

We can immediately see the difference between the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and the gift that the apostle Paul is talking about here. For starters, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh were gifts given by men to Christ. The gift that Paul writes about is a given by Christ to men. The second difference is that the gold, frankincense, and myrrh were given to Jesus when He was an infant, and they ultimately came to symbolize His future. But the gifts that Jesus offers to us – grace and mercy and forgiveness of sin through His sacrificial death – were given when He was grown and it’s not symbolic of our future, it’s central to it. And the final obvious difference is that gold, frankincense, and myrrh were monetary gifts. They were physical gifts, and thus their value is only on this earth. But the gift that comes through Jesus Christ is a spiritual gift that’s valuable in the court of heaven today as well as in all eternity.

So, these gifts were costly. They were expensive. But they didn’t cost the wise men everything. The Gift that Paul writes about, however, cost Jesus everything. He left heaven and came to earth. He humbled Himself. He poured Himself out, the Bible says. I want us to see these contrasts because they’re important, and also because that’s exactly what Paul does in this passage. He simply draws the contrast between Adam and Jesus.

Adam sinned. Jesus saved. When Adam sinned, death entered the world. That’s what verse 12 says. The proof that sin entered the world was death. And because of Adam’s sin, many died. Yet, Jesus came to put an end to death. And because of Jesus’ death, many can live. What Adam did brought bondage; what Jesus did brought freedom. Adam disobeyed God (his Creator); Jesus obeyed God (His Father). Adam sinned, and because of that everyone was declared unrighteous; Jesus died and paid the price, gave the gift, gave His life, and thus people can be declared righteous once again. Lots of contrasts. Huge differences between Adam and Jesus. And I just want to highlight three things about the gift that Jesus offers that we should know. It means something.

The Gift Means We Are Loved

Typically, when we give someone a gift, we give it to them in order to express our love and appreciation for them. And here’s why we do that – because true love isn’t passive, it’s active. People like to demonstrate their love, because that what love likes to do. It’s an active thing. It’s an active emotion. In the words of British poet and churchman, William Dunkerley:

Love ever gives.
Forgives, outlives,
And ever stands
With open hands.
And while it lives,
It gives,
For this is love’s prerogative
To give, and give, and give.

If you’re ever tempted to doubt God’s love, then consider the Gift: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). It doesn’t say, “For God was so angry at the world that He sent His Son to knock them all out.” No. “For God so loved the world,” because that’s His essence. That’s the very core of His nature. The Bible says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). And though that’s very easy on the ears, it’s hard for our minds to actually grasp.

In fact, it was so immense, it was so huge, it was so monumental that the apostle John said, “Behold, what manner of love is this…” In other words, “We’ve never known a love like this.” It’s so different. Human love is object-oriented; God’s love is subject-oriented. When we see something that we like, we place value on it. We say, “I really like that. I want that. I want to drive that.” Or a young man sees a young girl and says, “Ooh, I like what I see.” That’s what object-oriented love looks like and sounds like. I’m loving this person because I deem them as valuable based on their personality or looks or whatever. That’s human love.

God’s love is different. It’s not object-oriented. It’s subject-oriented. It’s based on His character. God loves you and me just because… That’s His nature. And He loves you and me very deeply. It’s not a superficial love. It’s a personal, intense, selfless love. So, the gift means we’re loved.

The Gift Means We Can Be Forgiven

Notice that I didn’t say the gift means we’re automatically forgiven, but there’s the possibility of forgiveness. That’s what Paul writes here. He says in verse 15, “For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and His gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ.”

Before Adam sinned in the perfect environment of the garden, God basically said, “Have at it. Have a good time. Do anything you want. Go anywhere you want. But don’t touch the tree in the middle of the garden. Just don’t touch that, because in the day that you eat of it you will (anybody?) surely die.” And that’s the rub. That’s the rub of so many things that overpromise and underdeliver. Sin always overpromises: “Do this and it’ll satisfy you.”

That’s how addictions start. “I’ll do that and then I’ll be satisfied.” The rub is it doesn’t completely satisfy. You need more. But the more you do it, the more unsatisfied you become. It doesn’t really fill you up. The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death.” When Adam and Eve took of that fruit in that garden, they immediately began to die. They started to die physically, but they were also spiritually separated from God. That’s what death is; it’s separation. We need to know this because we live in a world where it’s pretty easy to look around and say, “It’s bad out there.”

Why is that? I mean, after thousands of years, why is the world still the way it is? Who’s to blame? We still have wars. We still have anger. We still have people doing mean, horrible things. After all of this time, and all the education, and all of the other advancements we’ve made in science and technology and industry and medicine, and on and on. You’d think we’d get beyond the truth of “The wages of sin is death.” But no. Who do we blame? Some me say, “It’s the fault of the liberal media,” or, “It’s the fault of the Republican Party,” or “It’s the fault of the Democrats,” or, “It’s a white issue or a black issue.” No, no. It’s a sin issue. It’s not a skin issue. It’s a sin issue. That’s what’s wrong with the world. It’s deep within all of us. But the news of the Gift is that we can be forgiven.

As many of you know, I really enjoy fishing (freshwater mostly, but a good saltwater charter every now and then ain’t too bad either). One of the reasons I like freshwater fishing so much is the natural beauty and stillness. You’ve heard people say that ponds or lakes can sometimes look like a sheet of glass. Well, it’s true. Sometimes you can get out on the water, just before sunrise, and it’s so calm (no wind, no recreational boaters). It’s so clear, so perfect, so pristine that it looks like there’s two skies – one on top of the other. What could mess that up? A largemouth bass jumping out of the water as it hits a school of baitfish. And in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye that calm mirror lake is all ripples, and the image is marred.

That’s what happened when Adam sinned. He destroyed the reflection of God, the image of God. Then, Jesus comes along sometime later, and essentially says, “I’ll fix what’s been messed up. I’ll put the image of God back. I’ll make a person right-side up after they’ve been put upside down.”

So, Adam messed up the image and Jesus restored it. Ruined by one man’s misdeed, rescued by one Man’s merit. This whole section here is about death. Adam did this, and then death happened, and death, and death, and death. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). So, the Gift means we’re loved. And the Gift means we can be forgiven.

The Gift Has To Be Received

There are many people that know the gospel. They’ve been to church, and they’ve heard this all their lives. “Yeah, yeah, I know, God came out of heaven to this earth, was born in a manger, grew up, died on a cross, rose from the dead. So, it means God loves you. Yeah, I got that. It means you can be forgiven. Good. Yeah, I’ve heard that before. It means you can live forever. Good to know.” But it means you have to receive it or none of that is true for you. Gifts have to be received in order for them to be gifts, right? Imagine that you find that misplaced or forgotten gift with a name tag on it and give it to the person it was intended for, and they say, “Cool. That’s my name and that’s my gift. H’mm. Wow. Cool. Good.”

What good is that? Don’t you have to open the gift? Don’t you have to use the gift? Don’t you have to try the gift on and maybe exchange it for a larger size or a smaller size, depending? But you have to use it. You have to open it. You have to receive it, or it’s really of no value. And so, it is with this gift. The gift has to be received. In the gospel of John, we read this “He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him. Yet to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:11-12).

The Greek word that’s used there is the word lambanó. It means “to lay hold by aggressively and actively accepting what is offered.” It’s the same word that’s used in Romans 5:17, “For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and His gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.”

This Christmas, you might not have received everything you wanted, but today you can receive what’s offered. And that’s love, and forgiveness, and life eternal. But in order to get all of those things you have to take the gift. You have to receive the gift. Otherwise, all of this is just mere words on a page, just me (a mere mortal) stringing sentences together and giving a speech. But if you receive what I’m saying, if you take what the apostle Paul is teaching, if you lay hold of what God through Christ has offered, well then, you’ll receive salvation. Romans 5:17 defines salvation as “triumph over sin and death.” In short, it’ll be the best Christmas gift you’ve ever had.

There are others of you here today and you’re thinking, “Well, Pastor, I’ve already accepted Jesus’ gift of salvation what’s in this for me?” If that’s you, perhaps the message for you is that you can get tired of THE gift. You received it with excitement and treasure it in the moment, but after a while it got replaced, it got moved to another room, it wound up on the closet shelf or in the corner of the garage collecting dust. For those of us that have already received the gift of God’s amazing grace and forgiveness and mercy and love through Jesus, perhaps we just need to be reminded of the beauty of the gift and the glorious nature of the One who gave us the Gift in the first place. And that’s why we come to His table.

“Father, what a wonderful season this is. We’ve just celebrated Christmas with all of the exchanging and receiving of gifts, and we’ve also just celebrated the gift of a New Year. God, if there’s anyone here this morning that hasn’t received Your free gift of salvation in Jesus, then I pray that the Holy Spirit wouldn’t let them go until that’s been settled. Lord, for the rest of us, we take these closing moments of today’s worship and remember the significance, and celebrate the beauty, and praise the glory that is Your gift of salvation to us through Jesus Christ, as we gather around His table. For we offer this prayer in His most holy name, amen.”

The Gift of Myrrh – Matthew 2:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and, once again, turn with me to Matthew 2. If you were with us on Christmas Eve, then you heard me read the poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Well, this morning, I want to share with you it’s lesser-known twin brother; the poem ‘Twas the Day After Christmas.

Twas the day after Christmas, and all through the house,
Every creature was hurting – even the mouse.
The toys were all broken, their batteries all dead.
Santa passed out, with some ice on his head.

Wrapping and ribbons just covered the floor,
While upstairs the family continued to snore.
And I in my T-shirt, new Reeboks and jeans,
Went into the kitchen and started to clean.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the sink to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the curtains and threw up the sash.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a little white truck, with an oversized mirror.
The driver was smiling, so lively and grand.
The patch on his jacket said “U.S. POSTMAN.”

With a handful of bills, he grinned like a fox.
Then quickly he stuffed them into our mailbox.
Bill after bill, after bill, they still came.
Whistling and shouting he called them by name:

“Now Dillard’s, now Belk’s, now Penney’s and Sears,
Here’s Cabela’s and Target’s and the big one from De Beers!
To the tip or your limit, every store, every mall,
Now chargeaway, chargeaway, chargeaway all!”

He whooped and he whistled as he finished his work.
He filled up the box, and then turned with a jerk.
He sprang to his truck, and he drove down the road,
Driving much faster with just half a load.

Then I heard him exclaim with great holiday cheer,
“Enjoy what you got; you’ll be paying all year!”

Well, you might be feeling like that about now. We’ve been in Matthew 2:1-12 for several weeks and we’re considering each of the gifts that the wise men brought Jesus. It’s been good to spend a little extra time and meditate on a familiar passage.

We’ve learned, for example, that there weren’t three of them. There were three gifts presented, but there was probably a larger entourage of these magi. The second thing we made note of is that they were not kings, they were kingmakers. They were a hereditary priesthood tribe, and they were in charge of acknowledging who kings would become, and they advised kings. And then the other thing that we noted is that they didn’t show up the day or the night that Jesus was born, but that they came sometime later, as far as up to two years after his birth. He was a “young child” at the time, and he was now in a house and not some structure used for housing animals.

But we also noted that the gifts weren’t just costly, expensive items. They were emblematic of roles that Jesus would play. The gold was to acknowledge that he was the King. That’s exactly what the wise men said they were looking for: “Where is He who has been born the King of the Jews?” They also gave Him frankincense. And as we noted last week, that was the substance that was used by the priesthood in the temple in Jerusalem. And the New Testament book of Hebrews confirms that Jesus has become our Great Hight Priest.

Today, we’re going to consider the third gift – the gift of myrrh. Of all three gifts, the most curious of all and perhaps even insulting was this third gift of myrrh. And, yet it’s the most inspiring, because it shows us the depth of God’s love. So, let’s read these verses one more time.

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

6 ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’

7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

“Speak, Lord, in the stillness while we wait on Thee, and hush our hearts to hear in expectancy; to hear Your voice, not so that we might have information to ponder but that we might have a life-changing encounter with You – the Living God – through Your Word by the power of the Holy Spirit, for we offer this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, the Babe of Bethlehem. Amen.”

The Significance of Myrrh in Ancient History

The use of myrrh goes all the way back to the second millennia B.C. One source I read said as far back as the sixth millennium B.C. That’s the Neolithic Period. So, it’s an ancient item and it was used way before Jesus. What is it exactly? Well, myrrh, like frankincense is a resin that comes from a tree or a plant. It was an aromatic resin that came from a reddish sap from a low-lying, low-growing, thorny tree of the genus Commiphora. You would wound the tree by making small incisions that would cause the sap to come out. The sap would harden into a resin and that resin was called myrrh.

It appears 17 times in the Bible; 14 of those are in the Old Testament; 3 of them are in the New Testament. The Hebrew word is mor. (Remember that because it will be a strong connecting point in a moment.) But the word that’s used in the text that we just read is a Greek word. And some of you might recognize it. It’s the word smurna. There was a city called Smyrna. And if you’ve read Revelation 2, it was the second of the seven churches that Jesus wrote little postcards to: “To the angel of the church of Smyrna.” Smyrna was 30 miles north of Ephesus in Asia Minor. It’s the modern-day city of Izmir, Turkey. Most of you will probably recall the name Aristotle Onassis – the guy who married Jacqueline Kennedy – that’s where he was from (Izmir/Smyrna). It was because of myrrh that the city Smyrna got its name.

It was used several different ways in ancient times. First of all, it was used as a beauty treatment. When queen Esther, before she even became queen, was brought in before the king (Esther 2:12) we read this: “Now when the turn came for each young woman to go into King Ahasuerus, after being twelve months under the regulations for the women, since this was the regular period of their beautifying, six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and ointments for women.” So, it was like the ultimate spa experience, and it lasted a year. How’s that for a treatment: six months with myrrh? So, it was a beauty product.

Second, it was a perfume. Psalm 45:8 notes that the king’s garments are, “scented with myrrh and aloes and cassia.” Some of you remember Proverbs 7 where the seductress says to the young man, “I have perfumed my bed with myrrh and aloes and cinnamon.” And then I love the Song of Solomon where Solomon (the groom) says to his fiancée as she rides in toward him, “Who is this coming out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh…” So, it was a beautifying treatment, a spa treatment. It was used as a perfume.

Third: it was an analgesic. It was a painkiller. It took away the pain. By the way, it’s still recommended in certain parts of the world for toothaches and for sprains and minor aches and pains. It was used in the Bible that way, too. In Mark 15 we’re told, “They gave [Jesus] wine mingled with myrrh to drink, but He did not take it.” When Jesus was on the cross and he was dying the most excruciating death of crucifixion, the Romans offered Him wine and myrrh to deaden the pain, but Jesus refused it in order to experience the fullness of our sin.

A fourth use is as an antiseptic. Again, in many parts of the world it’s used in mouthwashes, in toothpaste, and they say it even prevents gum disease.

But it’s the fifth usage that’s important and relevant to our text. It was used as an embalming fluid. It was used to treat the dead. And I’ve quoted the Greek historian Herodotus a lot, because I draw a lot of this stuff from him. He says that it was used mostly by the Egyptians for embalming the inside of the body cavity before it was entombed. But not only them; the Jews also used myrrh to treat the outside of the body. In the case of Jesus, after He died, at His burial in John 19:39 we read, “Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about 75 pounds in weight.” Now, the reason they used it was obvious. Dead bodies begin to stink and to mitigate against the stench of that tomb experience, myrrh and aloes were used to encase the body. Here’s what’s interesting: the same substance that was associated with Jesus’ birth is also associated with Jesus’ death.

Now why this is fascinating is because I discovered that the ancient rabbis associated myrrh with sacrificial death, and especially Abraham giving his son Isaac on Mount Moriah. And here’s why they make that association: the Hebrew word for “myrrh” is the world mor, which is the root word for Moriah, the place where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac. The name of the mountain is Mount Moriah, but it would also be accurate to call it the “mountain of myrrh.”

Now, this really got my attention, because in that same area (Mount Moriah) is where Jesus would be sacrificed by His Father for the sins of the world, years later. No wonder, then, that ancient Christian scholars regard this gift of myrrh, to Jesus, as prophetic of His death.

Have you ever been given a gift that bombs at Christmas? My parents would give, like, underwear. They’d wrap it up. I go, “What? Underwear. Seriously?” It’s like you open it up, “Ahh!” But that’s what the angel said to Joseph, “You will call His name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sin” (Matthew 1:21). And how would He save the people from their sin? By going to the place where myrrh was used most – the place of death.

Now, before we move on, I want to make a very important qualification here. You need to hear this. You need to know this. No one is saved by Jesus’ life or His words. We’re only saved by His death. Salvation only comes as you recognize that Jesus took your place on a cross and died for you. You say, “Well, you know, I’ve always liked the red letters of Jesus. I like to meditate on the red letters. I feel so good whenever I do.” Or, “I’ve always seen Jesus as a wonderful example of a human being. And I aspire to live by that example.” Good luck with that. Salvation only comes through Jesus’ death.

The Symbolism of Myrrh in Jesus’ Ministry

You see, we all know the Christmas story. We’re familiar with it. We know about the manger. Know about the shepherds. We know about the singing angels, the wise men. But do you know the rest of story? The rest of the story is that this Child was the only person who was ever born with the distinct purpose of death. Sure, we all die. That’s part of the curse of the Fall and sin’s entrance into the world. But God didn’t allow us to be born for the sole purpose and intent of being killed. But He did with Jesus. That’s the part that most of us overlook at Christmas. Here we are looking over the manager while we overlook the cross. That was the goal of the manager. Unless you see the shadow of the cross falling on the crib, you don’t see the crib clearly at all. The purpose for the crib was the cross.

When Jesus died on the cross that wasn’t plan B. It wasn’t a divine “oops.” God never goes, “Oh, this wasn’t supposed to happen.” No. It was always supposed to happen. God planned it that way from the beginning. Jesus is called (Revelation 13) “the Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth.” It was always the divine plan that Jesus would be born and die for the sins of mankind.

I want to show you a painting by William Holman Hunt called The Shadow of Death. (Here it is.) It took him 3 years to paint, and the symbolism is simply remarkable. Notice the sawhorse where Jesus has just finished cutting wood resembles a manger. Then there’s the wood spar on the wall behind Jesus and hanging on the spar are hammers and chisels – tools He would be associated with in carpentry, but also tools associated with His crucifixion. Finally, notice Mary. She’s down on her knees and she’s opening a chest that appears to contain the gifts of the wise men. As she’s opening the chest, she looks up at the shadow that’s created by the afternoon son. In the moment, Jesus is simply taking a break from His work as a carpenter and He’s stretching, but the shadow looks as if He’s on the cross. William Holman Hunt understood that the cross cast a long shadow throughout history. He understood that Jesus was born with the singular goal of going to the cross of Calvary.

Max Lucado, in his terrific book, God Came Near, imagines that Mary understood this too. And the night Jesus was born, Max imagines that Mary offers a prayer. In the book it’s called “Mary’s Prayer.” He writes as if Mary is praying: “Rest well, tiny hands. For though you belong to a King, you will touch no satin. You will own no gold. You will grab no pen. You will guide no brush. No; your hands are reserved for works more precious: to touch a leper’s open wound, to wipe a widow’s weary tear, to claw the ground of Gethsemane. Your hands, so tiny, so tender, so white – clutched tonight in an infant’s fist. They are destined, not to hold a scepter nor wave from a palace balcony, they are reserved instead of for a Roman spike that will staple them to a Roman cross.”

At this point you might be asking, “What kind of a father would give his son to be killed?” Only a Father who loves you enough to redeem you with the only way possible – His Son’s death. So, we’ve seen the significance of myrrh in ancient history. We’ve noted the symbolism in Jesus’ ministry.

The Signal to Us Personally

Now, I want to draw your attention to the response of the magi. Just sort of coming full circle. Verse 10, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.”

Now, whenever the Bible says that you just have to imagine that it’s not like they cracked a smile. It’s not like, “Heh, that’s great.” That’s not exceedingly great joy. It’s more like your kids or grandkids opening gifts on Christmas – jumping up and down, hooting it up. That would be exceedingly great joy. They saw the star and they rejoiced. Then verse 11, “When they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Here’s what I want you to see: these wise men saw two things that caused them to do two things. They saw the star and they saw the Child, and they did two things: they rejoiced, and they worshipped.

They found what they were looking for and it produced joy. How much joy is in your life, today? You know, we sing about joy this time of the year: Joy to the World! We sang these words this morning: “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” Are those just hollow words for you, or is there a genuine sense of joy in your life? They found what they were looking for and they rejoiced.

And they worshiped. They fell down. These wise men “worshiped.” The Greek word I mentioned a couple weeks ago, proskuneó, is a very strong word and it’s almost always reserved for worshiping God. These magi fell down, they bowed low, and they worshiped. These kingmakers, these influential, dignified, politically connected men are bowing down to a baby. Why? Because they knew their place.

You see, you don’t brag about your crayon sketches when you’re standing next to Picasso. And you may be a kingmaker, but when you’re standing in front of the King of kings, you bow. They knew their place. They bowed down and they worshiped. So, I draw your attention to this: What should our response to Christmas be? And second: What gift should we give to Jesus, if anything? First of all: What should our response be? (Rejoicing.) I know that this time of year is hard for some of you, but you can make a decision that rejoicing will be part of the menu. Second: What do we give Jesus? (Worship.) Some commentators call this the fourth gift of the magi: gold, frankincense, myrrh, and worship. You can worship Him.

I want to close this little series with another little story from the pen of Max Lucado, this time from his devotional It Began in a Manger. He writes:

“It’s Christmas night. The house is quiet. Even the crackle has gone from the fireplace. Warm coals issue a lighthouse glow in the darkened den. Stockings hang empty on the mantle. The tree stands naked in the corner. Christmas cards, tinsel, memories remind Christmas night of Christmas day.”

“It’s Christmas night. What a day it’s been! Spiced tea. Cranberry sauce. ‘Thank you, so much. You shouldn’t have!’ Grandma is on the phone. Knee-deep wrapping paper. ‘It fits perfectly.’ Flashing cameras.”

“It’s Christmas night. The midnight hour has chimed, and I should be asleep, but I’m awake. I’m kept awake by one stunning thought. The world was different this week. It was temporarily transformed. The magical dust of Christmas glittered on the cheeks of humanity ever so briefly, reminding us of what is worth having and what we were intended to be.”

“It’s Christmas night. In a few hours the cleanup will begin – lights will come down; trees will be thrown out. Size 36 will be exchanged for size 40, and eggnog will be on sale for half price. Soon, life will be normal again. December’s generosity will become January’s payments, and the magic will begin to fade.”

“But for the moment, the magic is still in the air. Maybe that’s why I’m still awake. I want to savor the spirit just a bit more. I want to pray that those who beheld Him today will look for Him next August. And I can’t help but linger on one fanciful thought: If He can do so much with such timid prayers lamely offered in December, how much more could He do if we thought of Him every day?”

And so, we savor these gifts of Christmas: the gold (He’s King of kings); the frankincense (He’s our Great High Priest); and the myrrh (Behold! Our sacrificial Lamb). We savor that. We linger on that. Oh, there is one final thought. Myrrh gave off its best scent when it was crushed. Does that ring a bell this Christmas? Isaiah 53:5, “But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed.”

“Father, to some it might seem strange that we considered death on the day after Christmas, but it’s fitting to know that Jesus came for a purpose and that purpose was the atonement, that purpose was to be a sacrifice, to bear the weight of sin and shame. All of us have sinned, and all of us have come short of Your glory, but we celebrate that a sacrifice, a Lamb, has come who would take away the sin of the world. And we rejoice, Lord, in humility, bowing down, thanking You, worshiping You this Christmas, in Jesus’ name, amen.”

The Gift of Frankincense – Matthew 2:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Matthew 2. One-hundred eighteen years ago, this past Friday (just 2 days ago), we celebrated a historic milestone. It was December 17, 1903, and it involved two brothers from Dayton, OH who went down to Kitty Hawk, NC and did something historic. Ring a bell? Orville and Wilbur Wright flew an airplane for the first time. They were so excited about going a few hundred feet that they wired back to their sister Katharine (in Ohio) a simple message. It was this: “We have flown 120 feet.” And then they added a little addendum that said, “We will be home for Christmas.”

Well, she was so excited, she took the message down to the newspaper editor who read those words, and his response was this: “How wonderful that the boys will be home for Christmas.” He overlooked the most monumental news of the century. Man had flown, and all they were thinking about is “the boys will be home for Christmas.” And that happens every year at Christmas. The world overlooks the grand news that a Savior has been born. We overshadow it with gifts and wrapping and parties. Sometimes we overlook the details in the story too, like what the gold meant, and what the frankincense meant, and what the myrrh meant.

Two weeks ago, we began considering the gifts that the wise men brought to Jesus after His birth: the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh. We started with gold and saw how that gift was emblematic of Jesus’ role as a priceless gift, as royalty – indeed, as our King. And today we’re going to resume by considering the gift of frankincense. I want us to consider the men who gave the gift, the meaning of the gift, and the ministry of the One who received the gift. But before we do, let’s read the text again (Matthew 2:1-12):

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ 7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

Now, gracious Father, we pray that the Holy Spirit will be our teacher, so that the pages of the Bible might be illumined to us and that we might see Your Son, the Lord Jesus, in all of this wonderful prophetic expectation, and that we might, in being encountered by Him, come to bow down before Him and acknowledge that He is Savior and Lord, and all of this to the praise of Your name. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

Let me quickly recap a few things we learned two weeks ago. We noticed that, unlike most of our nativity scenes and the Christmas carols that we sing and the cards that we write, the visit of the wise men almost certainly did not take place on that first Christmas. Verse 11 uses the term “child” to describe Jesus, and while that word by itself could be used to refer to a baby, it’s unlikely that Matthew would’ve used that word if, in fact, Jesus was still and infant. Another detail that supports this is Matthew 2:16; just a few verses later, Herod realizes that he’s been tricked by the wise men and seeks to have all the male children 2-years old and younger killed. And the Bible tells us that age range was chosen because it was “according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”

Also, the scenery seems to have changed. In Luke’s gospel, it seems rather clear that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the house. Luke 2:7 says, “there was no place for them in the inn.” The Greek word that’s translated as “inn” is kataluma, and it’s only used 3 times in the Bible, and 2 of the 3 times it’s translated as “guestroom.” So, Luke’s narrative seems to indicate that the family was turned away from the house and pointed in the direction of a stable or at least another connected shelter for animals. When you add to that the fact that Jesus was placed in a manger, it most certainly suggests that they weren’t inside a structure where other people were residing. But by the time the wise men show up, as recorded in Matthew 2, they come “into the house” where Jesus and Mary and Joseph were staying.

Now, just make a little note here. Of all of the things in the story that we have a record of, there are certain things we don’t have a record of. For instance, Matthew left out any explanation about the wise men (the magi) except to say that they were “from the East.” We have to go back into history to find that out. And Matthew, interestingly, doesn’t tell us a lot about the star. He just said they followed a star and the star showed them where to go. So, while those details are left out, Matthew does give us details about the gifts that were presented: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. The Holy Spirit, through Matthew, preserves those details, which I believe are symbolic and illustrative of Jesus’ forthcoming life.

With that out of the way, let’s consider the men who gave the gift, the meaning of the gift, and the ministry of the One who received the gift.

The Men Who Gave The Gift Of Frankincense

We looked at these fellows a little bit two weeks ago, but there’s just so much more and particular to this story. You’ll notice again in verse 1 they’re called “wise men.” The Greek word is magoi/magos. It’s really a word that’s untranslatable, and so, our translators just take the Greek word and phonetically transcribe the word and thus we end up with “magi.”

The historian, Herodotus, said that they were a priestly caste of Medes; that is, they came from the ancient Medo-Persian Empire. And they were a smaller group within a larger group. In many ways they were similar to the nation of Israel where you had twelve tribes, but there was one tribe set apart as the priestly tribe: that’s the tribe of Levi. Well, it would seem that the Medes had a very similar setup.

There were many tribes within the Median kingdom, but they selected one tribe to perform rituals and ceremonies and all of the spiritual functions of worship. And the Magi was the group that was chosen, and they maintained an influence not in just one empire, but through several empires throughout history. They were important, for example, in the Babylonian Empire. They were important in the Medo-Persian Empire. They would be important in the Greek Empire, and also in the Roman Empire when Jesus was born.

So, they were a hereditary priesthood, much like the Levites, who influenced kings. They were monotheistic; they worshiped one God. The primary element of their worship was fire. We don’t know exactly why that is, except they must have seen fire as being symbolic of the power of God. And they maintained an altar that was used in the sacrifice of burnt offerings. Not only that, but when it came to the dead, they were very fastidious about how they would handle the dead, because they believed one could be defiled by touching a corpse.

Now why is all of that important? It’s important because when Daniel comes into Babylon where there are magi in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, he becomes the head, the chief over all the magi (according to Daniel 5:1). When he becomes the head of the magi, he brings in this Jewish belief system that he grew up with, and all of the prophecies about the coming King, and it was much easier for these magi to receive that kind of a system because it was so very similar to their own. So, we have a hereditary priesthood with political power, and they were involved in the royal courts and governments.

The reason they’re called “wise men” instead of “religious men” or “priestly men” is because they were sought out and consulted about the future. Kings would have them in their court. Kings would want to know, for example: “How should I move my armies?” “What country should I invade?” “What did my dream mean?” And they would consult this priesthood for that information.

By the way, no Persian could become king unless he met two conditions: 1.) he had to master the spiritual disciplines of the magi; and 2.) he had to be approved and crowned by the magi. How’s that for power? They were literally kingmakers of the ancient world. Their influence became so famous that there was a phrase to describe it in the Old Testament: “the law of the Medes and the Persians” (Esther 1:19; Daniel 6:8), which refers to the law given by the king after consulting with the magi.

So, to sum it up: we have a priestly tribe, influential during many kingdoms over hundreds and hundreds of years, who came to extreme prominence during the Babylonian era under Nebuchadnezzar, influenced by the prophet Daniel who brought in the Jewish Scriptures and made predictions of the coming Messiah. They talked about a future King who would be the ruler of Israel, ruler of the world, and they had access to the Jewish Scriptures. And when they came into Jerusalem and in Bethlehem, they were seeking the true God. Matthew 2:11 says when they found Jesus, they “worshiped Him.” So, these are the men who gave the gift.

The Meaning Of The Gift Of Frankincense

Now, let’s look at the gift. Matthew 2:11 continues by saying, “Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” What’s frankincense? Well, the English word “frankincense” comes to us from two French words franc and encens, meaning “high-quality incense.” The Greek word that’s used in the text is libanos, and it has connections with the name Lebanon. Frankincense, as a thing, as an object, was a resin from a very particular tree, a very pure kind of incense. It was highly prized and highly sought after, and very expensive. It was a resin or a gum from a tree in the Arabian Peninsula. The scientific name for the tree is Boswellia thurifera. I know you always wanted to know that, and now you know. This tree was native to Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Oman, and Yemen. And it only came to Israel by caravan, as an import.

It was harvested by making an incision in the trunk of the Boswellia thurifera tree, deep inside that trunk in the winter months of the year – kind of like tapping a maple tree for maple syrup. The sap is yellow and amber, sometimes white. It’s allowed to dry, harden, crystallize, and then it’s ground into a powder. And when it’s burned, gives off its fragrance and smoke. Obviously, if you grew up as a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, or even Anglican or Lutheran, you might recall the smell even as I’m talking about it. It’s a rather woodsy almost balsam-y smell with a hint of oil. That’s frankincense.

Knowing about frankincense is important, because it appears in the Bible 17 times. It’s almost always associated with the priesthood of Israel. It was a substance used for priests and by priests. It was used for them when they were anointed, when they were ordained into the priesthood. They took oil mixed with frankincense and put it on them as a way to mark them, to set them apart, to anoint them for service.

But it was also used by the priests in a very particular kind of an offering called the meal offering. Remember that in your Old Testament studies of Leviticus? I know you just probably read that the other day – Leviticus 2 and the grain offering or the meal offering? The Bible says, “When anyone brings a grain offering as an offering to the Lord, his offering shall be of fine flour. He shall pour oil on it and put frankincense on it and bring it to Aaron’s sons the priests. And he shall take from it a handful of the fine flour and oil, with all of its frankincense, and the priest shall burn this as its memorial portion on the altar, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (Leviticus 2:1-2).

It’s as if God in heaven goes, “Ooh, that’s good.” He smells it and it’s wonderful, not because it really smells good, though it did to people. This is metaphorical language, anthropomorphic language. God doesn’t literally smell the offering like we would – rather it’s all about our obedience and thanksgiving. That’s what the offering was about. And God says, “When you do it that way, when you thank me and you’re obedient to me, oh, that smells good.”

This is that offering that Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Philippian church concerning their financial giving to support his ministry. And Paul said it is “a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18). It’s what David referred to in Psalm 141:2 when he said, “Let my prayer be set before you as incense, and the lifting of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”

So, it’s a substance used by Jewish priests in the worship of the God of Israel in the Old Testament. Are you beginning to see the picture? We have a substance used by priests given by Parthian priests to one who would become a priest.

The Ministry Of The One Who Got The Gift

Finally, let’s consider the ministry of the One who got the gift. You’ve got priestly kingmakers bringing a priestly element, and Mary and Joseph are probably scratching their heads going, “Wha-whaaat!? What’s this all about?” Well, I think it’s illustrative. It’s prophetic. We know that one of the roles that Jesus would fulfill was the role of High Priest, right? The New Testament book of Hebrews is all about showing how Jesus is superior. And one of the areas where He’s superior is as our High Priest. Eleven times in the book of Hebrews Jesus is called our Great High Priest. In other words, at this very moment, we have a representative before God the Father in heaven – One who is acting like a priest, someone who represents people to God. That’s Jesus.

One of my favorite Scriptures is Hebrews 4:14-15, which says, “Seeing that we have a great High Priest who has gone into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted just like we are, and yet without sin.” And the writer of Hebrews goes to great lengths to say that Jesus’ version of priesthood is superior to the Old Testament priesthood of Aaron. It’s so much better because (then he quotes Psalm 110), “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” It’s not temporary. It’s forever. That’s why it’s better.

So, we have a substance used by Jewish priest given by Parthian Gentile priests to someone who would become what the Bible calls our Great High Priest. Now, there’s something that Jesus did after He died, after He rose, and after He ascended into heaven. Hebrews 10:12 says that Jesus “sat down at the right hand of God.” The reason that’s important is because priests in the Old Testament never sat down. Of all the articles of furniture that were in the tabernacle and the temple, one was absent, a chair. They were on their feet all the time. The work of the priest of the Old Testament was never done. In fact, that’s exactly what Hebrews 10:11 says, “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.”

They had to sacrifice and repeat those sacrifices every day, every week, every month, every year, every decade, on and on and on. It was never done. So, here’s Jesus: He comes, and He acts as a priest offering the sacrifice. And He acts as the Lamb; He was the sacrifice. He offers Himself for the sin of the world. He dies, He’s raised, He ascends into heaven, and he sits down, which means only one thing – “It’s done. It’s finished. It’s over. What Jesus did on the cross is enough to take care of the sins of the world.” And so, He sat down. That’s why it’s significant. Our High Priest has finished the task. Jesus sat down signifying, “I’m done as Savior. I’ve finished the work on the cross. It’s over.”

And yet, He continues His work as our intercessor. The same book of Hebrews says that “[Jesus] ever lives to make intercession for [us]” (Hebrews 7:25). That’s the role of a priest. He makes intercession for you. Have you ever had somebody say, “I’m praying for you,” and you go, “Oh, thank you. I really appreciate you doing that.” Jesus is praying for you. How’s that? He’s interceding for you. He’s talking to the Father about you. He’s the One who’s giving the help before the throne of holy, perfect God for you and for me. He’s our Great High Priest.

So, Jesus is our Great High Priest – making the full and final and perfect sacrifice – THE sacrifice to end all sacrifices. He’s our Great High Priest ever interceding for us. But it continues. In the New Testament, Paul calls Jesus our mediator – our ultimate middleman. Paul writes, “There is one God and one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). That’s why we have this little detail, buried in Matthew 2, about wise men presenting gifts of gold (representing Jesus’ role as King of kings and Lord of lords) and frankincense (representing Jesus’ role as our Great High Priest).

I’ll close with this story, true story. The year was 1936. Technology was growing by leaps and bounds. Radio waves ruled the world, and there was a historic radio broadcast from England to America that was about to be staged. It was King Edward VIII who was going to speak to the American people via a radio station in New York City. Everything was set. The king was approaching the microphone. Just moments before the event, one of the workers at the radio station ran across the floor and broke the wire that would transmit the sound from England to America. The producer, the executives, nobody knew what to do. But a quick-thinking intern grabbed one of the wires that was broken with one hand and grabbed the other wire that was broken. And as the king approached the microphone and spoke to the United States, the words were literally being transmitted through the body of that intern.

Do you know that’s the role of Jesus Christ as our Great High Priest? Heaven’s voice is transmitted through the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul said, “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). He reveals God’s intent, and God’s Word, and God’s will. No wonder Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). He’s our High Priest. He fulfills the role. And that’s why Matthew tells us that frankincense was given to the Christ Child.

Our God and our Father, what monumental truth. My heart bursts at these things. How humbled and grateful we are at Your sovereignty in using a group of priests from the pagan world and making sure that at the right time Judah would be taken captive.

That a young man named Daniel would be inserted into their reign to become the head of the magi, to influence not only them, but future generations, some of which would show up at the birth of Jesus, and say, “We have followed a wonder in the sky, and we know that a King is born, and we’re here to worship Him.” And in presenting gold, they recognized He was King – and indeed He is King of kings. In giving frankincense, they recognized He would be a priest – and indeed He is our Great High Priest – the One who offered Himself as the sacrifice, and the One who is still at Your throne right now interceding on our behalf in Your presence.

Lord, God, we know that the Bible says we have an accuser of the brethren who accuses us before Your throne day and night (and that’s Satan). How grateful we are that we have an Intercessor, an Advocate. How amazed we are at how detailed You are and how much You love us. Lord, I pray if anyone doesn’t know Jesus as their Savior, their true High Priest, as well as their One and only mediator and intercessor, that that would change, and it would change today. For we pray this in His name and for Your glory, amen.

The Gift of Gold – Matthew 2:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Matthew 2. I’ve got to say that I always find it awkward, at Christmas, because I feel like I’m sort of battling the theology of Christmas cards and Christmas carols. I’ve discovered that lots of people get information about Christmas solely on the pictures that people paint on Christmas cards or lyrics that come from Christmas carols. Have you ever noticed that? Christmas carols and cards are great, but you can’t necessarily bank on the theology they sometimes present.

For example, we’re all familiar with the song Silent Night, right? Think seriously about the opening phrase of the chorus: “Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm” – stop right there. Since when is the birth of a baby ever a silent night? Am I right? It’s not silent. Add to that the confusion in the streets of Bethlehem as people are signing up for a census that has been taken. Add to that the anthems of the angels, and the sky breaking forth in voluminous praise. It ain’t no silent night. You see what I mean?

So, it seems to me that of all of the people in the Christmas story, the group that has the most confusion surrounding them are the ones that we’re about to read about – the wise men, the magi, as some of your translations call them. And I say “confusion” because there was another great Christmas carol, written in 1857 by John Henry Hopkins titled We Three Kings of Orient Are. Remember that one?

It’s a beautiful song, but the Bible never says anything about their number. It just says they presented Jesus with three gifts. However, many it was, it was enough to make Herod troubled, and I don’t think three dudes on camels would have done that. An army would have, yes, an entourage, maybe, but just three guys? Probably not so much. So, the Bible doesn’t give the number, nor does it say they were kings. The Bible calls them wise men, or magi. Now, perhaps because of that description it might be fair to think that they were more influential than ordinary folks. But kings? That’s a bit of a stretch. Finally, the Bible says they came from the East, and while the “Orient,” as we understand it today, is to the East of Israel there are other countries to the East that aren’t particularly oriental.

So, they were from somewhere east of Israel, probably ancient Persia. They weren’t kings. They were spiritual advisors, as we’ll discover. They were kingmakers, in fact. And they didn’t come on the night of Jesus’ birth. They weren’t part of the manger scene, as the Christmas cards (and our own nativity scene) suggests. By the time they show up, Jesus is a child.

So, what we learn from the cards and the carols isn’t always right. It would be more accurate to sing, “We huge entourage of Parthia and astronomers from Iran traverse afar, bearing gifts…” But that would never pass the songwriting committee, so we have to dispense with that. Starting today and continuing through the rest of the month, we’re going to look at the gifts that they give and find out their symbolic meaning. This morning we begin with gold – the metal of kings. But let’s begin by reading the text, shall we?

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ 7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

“Lord, God of heaven, You who have spoken, and Your Word has come to be, grant now that by the Holy Spirit You will speak into our lives, granting to us clarity and understanding and faith, so that like those who rejoiced at the discovery of this good and great news, we might do likewise. For we humbly pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

Question about a Coming King

As with some of the false assumptions that we make due to the Christmas cards and displays, other legends, myths, and traditions have developed around who these men were. Some years ago, it was believed that these guys must be representatives of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the surviving families after the flood. By the time of the Middle Ages, they had developed names. The names Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior were given to them, saying that one was from Arabia, one was from Ethiopia, one was from Tarsus, respectively.

Marco Polo even wrote that in his travels he encountered one Persian village, and the villagers claim that their village was the point of origin for the beginning part of the journey of the wise men. In the 10th century, there was a Benedictine monk named Reinhold of Cologne (Germany), who claimed to have found the skulls of the wise men. And he said when he dug them up, he knew it was them, because their eyes were still in their sockets, and they were fixed toward Jerusalem. I kid you not. I mean, this is like goofy stuff made up through history.

In fact, all that the Bible tells us is that they were “wise men” or magi from the east. Now, the word “wise men” in the Greek is the word magoi (pl.) or magos (sing.). It’s where we get the term magi. History tells us that they came from ancient Persia. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, they were a priestly caste of the Medes; that is, they were from Parthia and Mesopotamia. They had one time tried to overthrow Persia but were unsuccessful. And they became a priestly tribe – advisors to kings and different royal monarchies. They were skilled in philosophy and science. They became known as men of wisdom, and they were interpreters of dreams. Originally, they had a worship system of Zoroastrianism – a religion named after its founder, Zoroaster. It was a monotheistic religion where they believed in worshiping the god Ahura Mazda.

Why all this history about the wise men – the magi? Because they appear in the Old Testament, and one of the prominent places is in the book of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar had hired the in his court to become his own spiritual advisors. They were among the highest-ranking officers in Babylon. And you’ll recall that one young man saved their lives, and that young man’s name was Daniel. Remember? He interpreted a dream for King Nebuchadnezzar that the magi, the wise men, of Babylon were unable to interpret. And because Daniel did that, he not only saved their lives, but Daniel was placed as the chief of the magi.

Now, why is this so important? It’s important because without it, we don’t understand the question in verse 2. The question is this: “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” Why on earth would people from Persia come to Jerusalem asking that question? The answer can only be Daniel had primed the pump of their ancestors. Daniel had spoken – in prophetic fashion – about the fact that there would be a Messiah born who would be the King over Israel, and eventually ruler of the world (read Daniel chapters 2, 9 and 12). Daniel gave those prophecies. And then thousands of Jews stayed in Babylon, so that, over time, the magi had access to all of the prophetic Scriptures in the Old Testament, like Numbers 24 that reads, “A star will come from Jacob and a [Ruler] from Israel,” or Isaiah 9, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; and those who dwell in the shadow of death, on them a great light has shined.”

So, they followed a star, and I don’t have time to talk about all of the different conjectures of what this star was. Every year there’s some new National Geographic specialty and astronomers say it’s this or that. Here’s the point: even foreign, pagan worshipers understood that somebody significant had “been born the King of the Jews.” So, they come with a question; the question about the coming King: “Where is He?”

Reaction of the Current King

That’s followed by the reaction of the current king, as seen in verse 3: “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled.” Tarassó is the Greek word. It means “greatly perturbed,” “highly agitated,” “deeply troubled.” And the verse says that not only was Herod troubled, but “all of Jerusalem with him.” Why was all Jerusalem troubled? Because Herod was troubled. You’ll find out that Herod was the kind of guy that when he’s unhappy, everybody else is unhappy. Remember that old saying, “If mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy?” If Herod’s not happy, nobody’s happy.

And the reason Herod was troubled is by a single word that’s buried in the question that the wise men presented: “Where is He who has been born (what?) king of the Jews.” That’s a word of competition. That’s a word of jealousy. That’s a word of threat. In the south we say, “Them there are fightin’ words.” That single word threatened rule and control and authority and power for Herod. See, because of his title, Herod was called the “king of the Jews.” Not in the same fashion that we associate with Jesus, but politically, societally and culturally Herod was the king. So, when he hears that there’s a Child born that’s possibly a Jewish-born king, well, then, his anger is stoked.

Let me tell you a little bit about Herod. Herod was not Jewish. He was Idumean. He was an Edomite. He came from modern-day Jordan east of the land of Israel. And the way he rose to power was not because of him, but because of his father. His father was named Antipater. Antipater once helped Rome, and because he had helped Rome, Julius Caesar gave Antipater rule over all of Judea.

When he died, his son, now called Herod the Great, took over and was given the title “king of the Jews.” It was a title that he held onto very, very tightly. History describes Herod the Great as cruel and paranoid. For example: he killed one of his several wives. He killed two of his eldest sons, so that they couldn’t occupy the throne. It was so bad that the saying went around: “It’s safer to be Herod’s pig than it is to be Herod’s son.” Herod was so vicious that when he was on his deathbed, he commanded that all of the chief people in Jerusalem be imprisoned. And the day that he died, he commanded that they all be killed, because he said, “Nobody will cry when I’m dead, but I want to make sure there’s mourning on the day of my death, so kill them all.”

This is the one who, just a few verses later, will attempt to have Jesus killed by having all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years and younger murdered. That’s the reaction of this king. But the story really centers around the last part, and I quickly want to move there because of time.

Adoration of the Competent King

After the question about a coming King, and the reaction of the current king, comes really the heart of this text; and that’s the adoration of the competent King, Jesus Christ.

Verses 9-11 say, “When they heard the king, and departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child…” Now notice that. They didn’t go into a manger. They didn’t go into a cave. They didn’t go into a barn. They were in a house. And Jesus wasn’t a baby anymore. He’s a child. So, this is sometime after Christmas. Verse 11 continues, He’s a “young Child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. And when they opened up their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

Would you please notice that before they gave their gifts, they gave their hearts? They worshiped Him. They worshiped Him, then they presented gifts to Him, and I think this is an important example to us. We often talk about the Christian’s responsibility to give their time, their talent, and their treasure, and, well, we should. But before we give any of that, we have to give ourselves, we have to give our very heart so that all those things are simply an outflow of our worship to the Lord. They worshiped Jesus, and then they presented their gifts.

And the first in the list is the gift of gold. Gold is mentioned in the Scripture 385 times. More than any other metal. It’s considered the most precious of all metals. Of course, this is before modern metallurgy. Now we know that rhodium is first on the list, followed by platinum, and then the third most precious metal is gold. But back then, gold was premium. It was considered the emblem of wealth. If you had gold, you were rich. Consequently, gold was associated with kings and royalty.

In fact, it was an ancient custom that if you ever approach a king, you must bring a gift, and it’s always best to bring at least part of the gift in gold. So, here we have Matthew (and only Matthew) telling us a story of these wise men. By the way, have you ever noticed that each of the gospel-writers has their own style, their own way of presenting Jesus, their own particular audiences? Matthew’s gospel is filled with references to the kingship of Jesus. It’s Matthew who presents Jesus to us as the King. So, it’s no surprise that he would include the story of Eastern Gentile kingmakers coming and presenting gifts fit for a king, the gift of gold.

And this is what I’d like to focus on as we approach the Lord’s Table. This gift of gold reminds us that we worship the Lord because He’s King. I want you to consider that as we take these elements in just a moment. In the Bible, there’s a term used over, and over again in the New Testament, “the kingdom of heaven,” and another term, “the kingdom of God.” The phrase “kingdom of heaven” appears 70 times; the “kingdom of God” appears 32 times, and 100 times the idea of a “kingdom” and a “King” associated with Jesus is mentioned. So, we should be worshiping Him not just as our Savior. Yes, He saved us from our sin. We shouldn’t be worshipping Him just as our Redeemer. Yes, He bought us out of slavery. We should also worship Him because He’s our King, our Sovereign, our Lord. As we draw near to Easter, Jesus will come into Jerusalem on a donkey, and when He does, the people will say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! The King of Israel!”

On the cross, Pilate will have ordered the statement: “THIS IS JESUS OF NAZARETH KING OF THE JEWS.” When Christ comes back in Revelation 19, on His robe He will bear the sign: “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” So, here’s the question for us today: Do we worship Him as our King? Are we, His subjects? Are we, His servants? Does He call the shots in our lives? Is He on the throne or are we on the throne? Is He the King? Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come,” and that can be answered right now. Does Jesus occupy the throne of your life and my life? Does He occupy the throne of your heart and mine? Jesus paid for you. He bought you. He owns you. He’s your Lord. He’s your King. Do you worship Him as your King? Savior, yes. Friend, yes. But certainly, Lord of lords, King of kings.

So, ask yourself this: Are you like Herod? Are you like the religious leaders? Or are you like the magi? Herod followed the star – that is, he followed himself. He didn’t want God or anybody else to interfere with his plans, his glory. What’s interesting about Herod is he claimed to be a worshiper, didn’t he? Verse 8 says, “Tell me where He is, so that I may worship Him.” He pretended to be a worshiper, but he wasn’t. A lot of people pretend to be worshipers, but they’re really worshiping themselves.

Then there are the religious leaders. Herod was following the star of self; the religious folks were following the star of religion. They knew all the right answers; but they had all the wrong actions. They could tell you chapter and verse. They knew the Bible prophesied that the Messiah would come, but they wouldn’t get off their duff to go see, if indeed, Jesus had been born in Bethlehem.

And then you have the magi. Oh, how I love them. You’ve seen the bumper stickers, “Wise men still seek Him?” They weren’t looking for anything but a King, and when they found that King, they worshiped him.

There’s one final verse before we take the Lord’s Supper. Look at verse 12. It says, “Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.” It simply means that they took a different route in going back home. But I thought about this verse, and I thought, you know, there’s a truth behind that. Whenever Jesus becomes your King, you’ll go out differently than you came in. You’ll leave a different way. That’s what Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, he’s a new creation, old things have passed away, all things become new.” Is Jesus really and truly King over your life? Does He have the authority in your marriage? Does He have the authority in your work life? Does He have the authority in your thought life? Is He King?

In Revelation 4 the twenty-four elders, I believe emblematic of the church, will cast their crowns down before His throne. I look at that and I say, why wait? Let’s do it now. Let’s cast any kind of rulership, ownership that we’re holding onto in our lives and say, “You, not us, you are the King, and we worship You.”

Let’s pray, and as we do I ask the Deacons to come forward.

“Lord, what a perfect way and a perfect day to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Only You could have orchestrated this day, the day that we consider Jesus being our King. We understand that He came to die for us as sinners and to become our heavenly Father, and yet You should also occupy a role and position in our lives as King and Sovereign and Lord.

O God, as we take these elements, I pray that the meaning of the gold would be more awesome to us than ever before – that though Jesus came from heaven and was deserving of all the world’s treasures, yet He humbled Himself to the extent of being in poverty, growing up as one of us, and ultimately facing death in order to redeem us. Lord, You are, indeed, worthy of our praise and we love You, in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”

Greener Pastures – Exodus 20:17

Exodus 20:17

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Exodus 20:17. For those of you that may be visiting today, we’ve come to the end of a series on the 10 Commandments. Interestingly, I’ve had a number of you send me e-mails, or stop me in the hall, or call me on the phone to say that you’ve really enjoyed this series. In fact, some of you have said you wish there were more commandments so that we could keep going. Personally, I’m having a hard-enough time with the ones we have; I’m glad there aren’t any more. (Amen??)

Nevertheless, we appreciate God’s Word and its relevance for our lives today. I’ve pondered why that is. Why is it that we’ve generally resonated with this particular series, and I suspect that it’s because we long for its truths to be evident in the culture and society. First, and foremost, they’re God’s instructions to us – His people. Yet, there’s something elementary and basic and guiding in these commandments. And when the world is so chaotic and topsy-turvy, it’s good to be reminded of these truths. They’re grounding. They’re firm. They’re never-changing. And I think that many of us have been looking for something morally solid to hang onto, and these 10 Commandments are just what the Lord provided.

Of course, as we’ve studied these commandments, we’ve also discovered what we always knew was true; that is, we’ve broken every single one of them (and sometimes regularly). It’s amazing how we tend to pick up the list and say, “Oh, I haven’t murdered anybody. I haven’t stolen anything. I don’t make it a habit of lying. I don’t take the name of the Lord in vain.” All-in-all, we think we’re pretty good folks. But upon further investigation we realize that we still fall woefully short of the holiness and righteousness that these commandments require. And that recognition, that awareness causes us to be all the more excited about the gospel, and all the more gracious for the gift of Jesus Christ. Amen!?

Hopefully, you’ve found Exodus 20:17. Let’s read this 10th commandment together: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

“Our God and our Father, as we undertake this final commandment, we pray that it might please You to, once again, enlighten us and remind us of our great need for a Savior. Lord, that we might conclude this study of Your holy law and be encouraged to live it out, to influence others by it, and to confront our society with it – not as a legalistic endeavor but in humble obedience to You, as recipients of grace through faith in Christ Jesus. In who’s name we pray, amen.”

His wife couldn’t make very much of him. He’d come home, and he was obviously in a really bad mood. He didn’t want to eat his dinner and went immediately to his bed. His wife clearly understood that the problem was not with her, nor was it with any other member of the family. The gentleman had been involved in a business negotiation which had gone bad. He wanted to secure a piece of property adjacent to his own, and although he himself had plenty of property, the other man’s pasture was looking greener than his, and he determined that he would gain control over this piece of his neighbor’s property. The man who owned the property wouldn’t accept cash or barter for it, and consequently, this man found himself at home and in his bed, and he was disgusted, and he was annoyed. His problem was that he had a covetous heart.

Now, his wife might have been a help to him if she’d endeavored to talk him out of it. But instead, her sin only made it worse. She told her husband not to worry; she would make a way for him to get the property. And she arranged, at a special function, for their neighbor to be confronted by slander and dishonor, so much so that he lost not only the title to the property but his own life.

Now, the story is so common that we might anticipate it coming from the local news. But, in fact, it comes from 1 Kings 21, and it’s the account of Ahab and his wife Jezebel, and their neighbor Naboth and their reaction to the splendor of Naboth’s vineyard.

Just as there is a clear distinction between a healthy appetite and gluttony (as so many of us learned this week), so there is all the difference in the world between appreciating what somebody else has – their belongings – and coveting those things. And the 10th commandment confronts us with a problem which, if we are very honest, all of us wrestle with. The 10th commandment forbids wrong attitudes towards the possessions and positions of other people. It teaches us to be content with what God has given us.

Now, the last several commandments: adultery, murder, stealing, and lying. They all dealt with actions – things that can be seen and noticed externally by others. This one, however, is hidden. This one can go undetected because it’s at the level of the heart, the level of the soul. It’s an issue with our intentions and our attitudes. It strikes at our desires.

Watch your children and grandchildren when you buy them a vanilla ice cream cone. They’re perfectly content until they see somebody else’s banana split. That’s what happened when your pastor was just a little fella. James and Melissa enjoy telling the story (it’s one of James’ favorites). They had just started dating. I was about 3 years old. They took me out to Dairy Queen in their Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible one summer evening, and they ordered me a plain vanilla ice cream. Apparently, everything was fine until I saw James’ banana split, then I said (as only a 3-year-old can), “I want that one.” Guys, James was really being a gentleman and trying to impress Melissa, ‘cause I ended up with the banana split and James ended up with the plain vanilla ice cream cone. (I’m not sure it would still work out that way today.)

The degree to which we’re able to score victories at the level of the ice cream determines what’s going to happen to that 3-year-old in his teenage years, his college years, and the kind of husband he’ll be to his wife. That’s why when we talk about baby dedications and “bring[ing] them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4, KJV) we’re not just using a bunch of phrases. We’re actually talking about something that’s intrinsically important in the rearing and developing of character in children. If we raise greedy kids, then we’ll walk our greedy daughters down the aisle and place them in the hands of some greedy man, and the two greedy individuals will spend their lives living consumed by covetousness.

Now, it would be bad enough if everybody recognized that this was a problem. But the trouble is, we don’t. And indeed, our society is so driven by materialism that it cashes in at every turn, especially now, in these days/weeks leading up to Christmas. So, while many churches are celebrating the first Sunday of Advent, and people’s attention is already turning towards shopping and presents and all the rest, perhaps it’s not so bad that we’re considering this 10th commandment.

This morning I want us to see the evidence of coveting, the effects of coveting, and the elimination of coveting.

The Evidence of Coveting

The evidence is clear. The verse identifies it for us. It outlines a number of ways in which we’ll see the evidence of coveting. Coveting focuses on a number of things. It may focus on money. Certainly, the Bible is replete with references to those who were consumed by a concern for money. So only one reference is needed.

We’re all familiar with the story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19. This particular story has a direct connection with Exodus 20:17 because, as you might remember, Jesus tells him to keep the commandments and the rich young ruler asks which ones. And Jesus says, “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, honor your father and mother,” all of the commandments that we’ve considered recently, and the young man said, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:18-22).

But maybe it’s not money, per se. Perhaps we want clothes. We read in Joshua 7, the story of Achan and how in the conquest they are able to pull together this vast amount of plunder. And the word of God to the people of God is “Don’t touch any of that stuff.” Achan determines he knows better; he takes it, and he buries it. And the servant of God comes to him and says, “Achan, what have you done?” And Achan says, “Truly I have sinned against the LORD God of Israel, and this is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them” (Joshua 7:20-21).

You been to the mall recently? You had any of those feelings? “When I saw that beautiful robe, when I saw that wonderful stuff, I said to myself, ‘I must have it.’” And guess what? They gave me a card to take the waiting out of wanting. In fact, to grease the skids of my covetous heart, they allow me to have it now and pay forever.

Coveting money. Coveting clothes. Coveting people. Here I have my wife from my youth. She grows. She develops. She bears my children. She nurtures me. She guides me. She counsels me. And society buffets me with visual images of the kind of wife that you should have. She looks different. She acts different. She is different. And the idea, the desire, worms its way into the mind of man to discard his wife or her husband and go for another. And every day across our nation, it happens again and again and again. It stems from a covetous heart.

And it’s not just limited to things, to tangible stuff, it also manifests itself in our desire for positions and power. “If only I was one further rung up this corporate ladder, I would be a happy guy. I don’t like it here. I don’t like this office. I don’t like how many windows it has. I don’t like the fact that it has no windows. If I could get one rung up, boy, I’d be good. And you know what? That joker one floor up from me, he shouldn’t be there anyway. Everybody knows that, especially me. I resent him. I resent his car. I resent his income. I resent the fact that he’s in my office.” Have you ever felt like that at all? It’s a covetous heart.

Is the Bible relevant to our day? Of course, it is! It’s powerfully applicable to our day. It gets to the very heart of the issues.

The Effects of Coveting

Now, if the evidence of coveting is plain for all to see, what about the effect of coveting? What effect does coveting have? Let me say four things that coveting will do.

First, coveting spoils relationships and lies behind many of our disagreements. You take a couple of youngsters who tracked together through school. They were the best of friends. They spent overnights together. They did homework together. They were neck and neck all the way through. They graduated together. They went on to college. They were still neck and neck. But after college, one of them became quite successful in financial terms, and the other one went on a slower track. The slower-track fellow can’t stand the success of his friend, and so when he calls, he’s no longer as interested. Their friendship is no longer cemented. Their care for one another is no longer what it was, ‘cause this guy has got a covetous heart, and he can’t stand the success of another.

That happens between brothers and sisters in a family. It happens in churches. It even happens between pastors. Pastor X and Pastor Y are in the same town, perhaps even the same denomination, and they fellowship with one another and minister side-by-side. They enjoy having lunch and comparing sermon notes and discussing ministerial highs and lows, and joys and woes. And one day, Pastor X leaves his church for a larger congregation across town, and now the two of them don’t talk because Pastor Y is nursing a covetous heart.

Second, covetousness breaks the summary commandment of Jesus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). It’s impossible to really love somebody and to be coveting their stuff. When we should say, “My, that’s a very pretty color on you,” our covetous hearts say nothing, and we get in our car saying, “I don’t know why she got that.” We can’t have a covetous heart and genuinely love our neighbor.

Third, a covetous heart makes me selfish, makes me always ask what’s best for me: “How will I do in this, how am I going to come out of this, what will happen to me in this deal?” Covetousness turns otherwise ordinary business transactions into cut throat, back-room, underhanded deals.

Fourth and finally, a covetous heart makes us think that life is all about material things, that the abundance of life is really what we’ve got, that he who dies with the most toys wins, that we buy the whole package. Nelson Rockefeller, interviewed by a newspaper reporter, on one occasion was asked, “How much money does it take to be happy?” and Rockefeller replied, “Just a little bit more.”

Think about it. Think about it when you were a child. Your father says you can have this much of an allowance. You’re really thrilled. You’re pleased! After all, you had nothing before he said it. Then he said it and he gave it to you. You’re thrilled. Till you walk outside, and you say to your friend, “Hey, my dad gave me an allowance. He gave me a dollar.” Your friend says, “My dad gave me two.” Now you’re gonna find out what kind of covetous heart you’ve got. You can’t be content with a dollar in your pocket for worrying about the fact that the guy next to you has got two bucks in his. That’s what happens in churches. That’s what happens in companies. That’s what happens in families.

The Elimination of Coveting

Well then, the question is obvious. If the problem is as endemic as that, if it’s as deep-rooted as that, if it’s as crucial as that, how in the world are we going to eliminate it? What are we gonna do?

Well, the answer is that we need to bring an eternal perspective into the discussion. And in order to do that, I want to take you to a story recorded for us in Luke 12. The story begins with these ominous words, “Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’” Words that every estate lawyer loves to hear. There you have it. The table has been set. There’s the perfect recipe for a covetous heart. One guy has it and doesn’t want to give it away. The other guy doesn’t have it and he’ll do anything to get it. It’s so bad that they bring it to Jesus. So, the guy says, “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” And Jesus says, “Hey, look, I’m not in the business of dividing up inheritances. That’s not why I came. There are people who can take care of that.” Then Jesus gives this one line of counsel. He says, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

He then tells them this parable: “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).

How do we eliminate the sin of coveting? We live with an eternal perspective that continually reminds us that this very day, this very night, could be the moment when God calls us to account. Today… Tomorrow… In the next 5 minutes… Or the next 5 years… At any moment we could be standing before the Lord Jesus Christ, and what then? Desiring our neighbor’s house, or our neighbor’s wife, or our neighbor’s contractors, or our neighbor’s cars, trucks, boats and RV’s, or anything else that belongs to our neighbor will be an extremely hefty price to pay when our souls are lost for all eternity.

Rather, might we find immense satisfaction and contentment in knowing and savoring our relationship with Jesus Christ. May we grow more and more eager to please Him, to live for Him. May we be reminded of Paul’s words to a young minister by the name of Timothy, when he said, “[G]odliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” (1 Timothy 6:6-7).

As the old gospel song says:

This world is not my home I’m just a passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore
Oh, Lord, you know I have no friend like You
If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore

What in this world is worth coveting when, as believers in Jesus Christ, we have the greatest treasure anybody could ever imagine? The truth is – nothing. But the sad fact of the matter is that many of us have forgotten just how precious our salvation is, and how blessed we already are. So, as we conclude this series and prepare for Advent, let’s take a moment and loosen our grip on the things of this world, and the things that our neighbor has that we don’t have, knowing that at any moment we could be face-to-face with the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Might we trust that in Jesus we have all that we’ll ever truly need in this life and the next.

“O God, how we’ve been reminded of our need for You, as we’ve studied these 10 Commandments. We have such a tendency to think we’re pretty good folks, especially when compared to the next guy, to the next gal, but when we stare into the pure holiness of Your Word and Your standard as outlined here, we know that apart from the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and our faith and trust in Him we’re never going to achieve perfection. So, we thank You and praise You for the blood of Christ that washes us clean and restores us to a right relationship with You.

Father, I pray that we would all take stock of our hearts and consider the ways in which we crave more stuff, more influence, more prestige, more more more, and in the process You and Your Word get pushed further and further to the back. Enable us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to desire greater godliness and contentment in You. Lord, would we not trade a moment in the splendor and beauty of Your holy presence for the trinkets and tinfoil of this world. In Jesus’ name, amen.”