Harry Potter Meets Jesus

Delivered December 23, 2001 by Rev. Jerome D. Cooper.

Theme: God works in unexpected ways. The wise men and their search for Jesus provide us with encouragement and valuable lessons in our own search for truth. Are you open to what God is trying to show you?

Sermon Text:
Matthew 2:1-12

This is a record year, at least for movie studios. This year people will spend more on movie tickets any other year. In fact, there is one movie that broke a whole host of records: biggest opening day, biggest single day, biggest weekend gross. You may know the movie, “Harry Potter.” After a successful series of novels, now the movie has become very successful.

It’s interesting that Harry Potter has caused quite a controversy within the church. I have actually seen Christian professors debating whether Harry Potter is good or bad, whether Christians ought to read Harry Potter or not, especially whether Christian children should be reading Harry Potter. Even within Central there are some parents who feel that it’s okay for their children to read Harry Potter, as they read along with them, knowing what they are reading. Others who feel like, “No, we want to keep our children as far away from Harry Potter as possible.” Now I am not going to solve that problem for you this morning, other than to say this. As a parent, be discerning, know what your children are reading and follow your conscience. Don’t be led to do something by pressure one way or the other, but also don’t judge those who might make a different decision. If you are a child: obey your parents.

Webmaster’s Note: for some information and resources about the controversy over Harry Potter, see What Are We To Think About Harry Potter?

That being said, this Christmas we don’t need look at Harry Potter to find controversy. We can find it right in the middle of the Christmas story. Because in the Christmas story we have these three men who come to visit Jesus – often called the “Three Kings,” or the “Three Wise Men,” or as you’ll see in this morning’s scripture, the Magi. In fact, to tell you the truth we don’t even know if there were three, we just assumed it because there were three gifts. Now, who are these Magi? Add a “C” on the end of Magi and what do you get? Magic. This is actually where we get our word in English for magic. It is from the Greek and the Latin for Magi. You see these men that came to see Jesus were magicians. They were astrologers. Not the people we normally think of as coming to Jesus. In fact, they were in some ways the Harry Potters of the first century. They were seen as suspect gentile magicians, not your Orthodox Jewish folk. Yet they are right in the middle of our Christmas story. What are we to do with them? Well, I would like us this morning to look at the scripture of the coming of the Magi to see Jesus, and look at the anatomy of their search for truth and see what it might teach us as we in each of our lives also seek for truth. Please turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew, Chapter 2, starting at Verse 1. You can find this on page 681 of your red pew Bibles. Matthew, Chapter 2 starting at Verse 1:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judaea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?” We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him. When King Herod heard this he was disturbed and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judaea”, they replied. “For this is what the prophet has written, but you Bethlehem in the Land of Juda are by no means least among the rulers of Juda.” For out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel. Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him report to me, so that I too can may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star they were overjoyed and on coming to the house they saw the child with his mother Mary and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they open to their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”

May the Lord add his blessing to this reading of his word. Please join me as we pray.

Lord, we do thank you for this story of history that you included for us in the Gospel of Matthew. We pray now that you would open our eyes, open our hearts, open our ears to be able to receive the word and the message that you desire for us to have, for us to learn. For we ask it through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, Amen.

As we look at the wise men, as we look at their search for truth, there are several things that can be helpful for us in our search for truth – whether we already know Jesus Christ or whether we do not yet know him. The first thing that we see of the Magi is that they take a very long journey to find the truth. After they have been set on this path we have to realize that from Persia, which is where they were most likely from, to Jerusalem, where they were traveling, is actually a journey of up to several months. They had to cross a desert. They had to cross mountains, it was not an easy or a quick journey. It wasn’t a weekend road trip to see something interesting. It was a costly journey, rather than a casual jaunt. It cost them dearly in time and in money. A caravan was not cheap, but it was also dangerous. It was a dangerous journey, crossing all those miles with many, many thieves and robbers along the way. This journey was not a small undertaking, but to these men the truth was worth the cost. In the same way for us, we cannot expect truth to easily fall in our laps if we are not willing to earnestly seek it.

Second, as we look at them we are confronted by what actually sent them off to Jesus in the first place – a star. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t generally send people to their horoscopes or to an astrologer to find Jesus. But yet here we have these men, being sent on their journey to find the truth, to find Jesus, the King of the Jews, by a star. What’s going on here? Is this somehow teaching that astrology is good and right? I don’t think so, for a couple different reasons.

One is that the bible generally condemns this kind of thing, calling it divination. But another reason is the nature of the astrological sign. Astronomers of today have sought long and hard for some sort of natural explanation for this star and they have come up with all sorts of possibilities – comets, super novas, an alignment of stars, and alignments of planets. But nothing seems to really fit, and I think I can tell you why. Because I don’t think it was a natural star. There is no natural phenomenon ever discovered that is able to lead people from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, less than five miles, and then stop over a specific house. Natural phenomena just don’t do that. The star was a miraculous sign that God gave to these Magi. And the amazing thing is that God gave them a miraculous sign that they could understand. Because they were people who searched the stars, God gave them a miraculous sign that they would be looking for, that they could see and, if they were willing, that they could follow. This leads us to an important characteristic of the Magi – that although they didn’t have a lot of knowledge, at least not about the truth of the Messiah, the King of the Jews, they acted upon the knowledge they had and they began their journey.

Now the sign that they were given by God is really a sign of God’s amazing grace to them. This is not something that you can predict, nor is it something that we should presume upon. How many of you, just out of curiosity, would send somebody to a witch doctor in order to find the true God? Anyone here? Okay, I didn’t think so. But let me tell you a true story. We have adopted an unreached people group. It’s a hill tribe. There are between 500,000 and a million of them, we don’t know exactly because there are no real census’ in that part of Southeast Asia. Incredibly, this tribe first came to hear about Jesus because of a witch doctor.

A very respected, powerful witch doctor in one of the villages told a group of young men, “Follow my white donkey and he will lead you to the true God.” Well, because he was a very respected witch doctor, they followed the donkey. They followed him for days. Those days turned in to weeks and finally they thought, “What are we doing, following this dumb donkey? He is not taking us anywhere.” They decided they were going to go back. But that day the donkey began to behave strangely and began to almost push them and force them to follow it. So they decided they would follow it for one more day. Near the end of that day the donkey walked into a clearing and stopped beside a hole in the ground. The men walked up to the hole and looked down and there at the bottom was a missionary digging a well. That missionary was the grandfather of the current missionary that we support, working among the (deleted-group-name). And that missionary when he got out of the well committed himself to taking the gospel to the people. In fact, he made the first rough translation of the New Testament into their language. Not exactly the approved, orthodox way of hearing about Jesus Christ is it – through a witch doctor and a white donkey? But God sometimes works in amazing and unexpected, even in what seem like unorthodox ways – just as he did in the Christmas story with the Wise Men, with the Magi. In an unexpected way he revealed a sign to them, that if they were willing, they could follow on a long journey, just as the (deleted-group-name) men journeyed a long way.

The star took the magi to Jerusalem. Now they were searching for the King of the Jews, weren’t they? And where would you expect a king to be? In the capitol, of course, in a palace, in the center of power, surrounded by privilege. That’s where they headed. They headed to Jerusalem.

And like any wise person they knew that they needed help in their search for truth. So they began to ask the question, “Where is the King of Jews? We’ve seen his star and we have come looking for him.” And in response they got a word from scripture. A word from the prophets saying that the King of the Jews, the Messiah, was to be born in Bethlehem. Now it’s interesting: the Magi got an awful long way based on just that original sign, but they never would have found Jesus if they had not heard the scripture that told them where he was to be born. Our human wisdom, even the general signs of grace that God gives us, will set us on a path and will get us a certain way down that path. But God has revealed himself to us and to this world in a very specific way, through the scriptures and through Jesus Christ. And on our own wisdom we can get only so far, but no further. It’s just like Peter the Apostle. Remember when Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and then finally, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus’ response was, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” There are certain things that only God can reveal to us – in his word, through his scripture and in Jesus Christ. And the Magi got all the way to Jerusalem, but could get no further until they had heard the words of scripture that would lead them to the true Christ. It is the same with us. We also need scripture to truly lead us to Jesus Christ. We can find truths in every religion and philosophy in the world. Every religion in the world has some truth. But Jesus Christ is the truth. The full truth.

The Magi, once they heard the words of scripture, left to find the Messiah, the King of the Jews. And so they went on their way to Bethlehem and they found, thanks to the star, where this child was. Now the amazing thing to me is that they actually believed that this child was the King of the Jews. I mean think about it. He wasn’t in the capital, Jerusalem, he was in backwater Bethlehem. What did Jesus look like at this time? He was under two years old. Now how often can you tell by just looking at a two year old that they are a king, now, I know that many of you have “princesses” that kind of thing, but most one to two year olds don’t inspire worship or adoration of this sort. Especially Jesus. He was in a regular home – we know that his family was poor. There would have been nothing human or earthly to say that this was the king, other than the scripture and the star that led them. As unlikely as this king was, as unlike anything they imagined finding, they were willing to accept this as the genuine king, as the Messiah, as the gift of God. And so, it says they knelt, they bowed down and they worshipped him. And then they opened their gifts and gave him from all their riches.

It’s a lesson to you and me as well, because often when we are in search of the truth, the truth ends up not being what we thought it would be, even for those of us who are Christians. When we look at Jesus, when we truly study who he is, sometimes he isn’t who we thought he was. He can be a very uncomfortable Savior and Lord. What do we do when we are confronted with the true Jesus and it’s not comfortable? Do we just try to ignore it and go on with life? Unfortunately, that’s the way most Christians do things, because we often let religion get in the way of truth.

In fact, there are two other kinds of folks in this story, aren’t there? Herod and the religious authorities. Look at the religious authorities. They had the answers, didn’t they? They knew where the Messiah was to be born. They knew scripture better than you and I know scripture. They were trained for it, they had memorized it. They had all this knowledge, but what good did it do them? None. They were too comfortable in their religion. Their religion answered the questions they wanted answered, they didn’t want to seek anymore because that might be uncomfortable. The American Church often is very similar to those religious leaders back then. The American Church has more knowledge and more resources at our fingertips than most of the world combined. Yet for all of our knowledge, are we more holy, more devoted to Jesus Christ than folks in a third world country? Than Christians in China who often share one Bible for a whole church? Knowledge doesn’t do us much good unless we are willing to act on it, like the Wise Men were willing to act. Each time they got a new piece of knowledge, they would act on it – they were obedient to it. How much knowledge do you and I have that we just don’t pay attention to? We know things in our mind, but we just don’t follow. If we really want to know the truth, it means acting on the truth that we already know.

There is another character in this story as well – it’s Herod. Herod had a different response. His wasn’t one of “Ignore it.” His was one of “Get rid of it!” Because if this really was the King of Jews, then that affected Herod very closely. I mean, this is the man who killed one of his own sons, because he was afraid his son was plotting to take his throne. So when he heard that there was a potential King of the Jews, he was afraid to accept Jesus for who he really was. For Herod to accept the truth about Jesus, was for Herod to lose that which was most precious to him – his power, his position, his place of respect. And he was not willing to sacrifice that which was dear to him for the sake of the truth of Jesus Christ. Unlike the Wise Men, the Magi, who were willing to give of themselves – to sacrifice and to worship at the feet of this child, this unlikely king.

And so the question comes to you and to me, “What is our response to Jesus?”

Is it like Herod’s? “To truly follow Jesus would cost me too much.”

Or are we like the religious authorities? “We’re just comfortable where we are. We don’t want to hear anything else. We have enough truth. No, thank you, to any more, that would be uncomfortable.

Or are we like the Wise Men on a search for truth? A search that cost something. Notice the search itself cost something. And as we gain knowledge, acting on the truth that we are given, we move toward Jesus – until we truly receive Jesus Christ for who he really is and not for who we simply want him to be.

You know Christmas is a wonderful time of celebration, yet it becomes so comfortable. The Christmas story, Jesus in a manger – harmless, not asking much of us, except to have a nice warm Christmas with family, and a nice big meal, and to love others a little bit more. But this Jesus asks everything of us. The Wise Men were willing to give it, are we?

It is interesting to note that we don’t know what happened to the Wise Men. It doesn’t tell us what the Magi did after that. But there is one little hint of their response to Jesus in an ongoing way, because after they had worshipped and given their gifts, it says that God warned them in a dream not to go back the way they came, back to Herod, but to go back another way. You see, here God was giving them a specific, a very specific, message – speaking to them, as opposed to the star which had been a fairly general, although miraculous sign. I believe this gives us a hint that they had found a relationship with God. And it happened because they had been willing to follow the signs of truth that God had given to them. And because they had a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, their feet were set on a new path.

Hopefully each of us is on a journey, seeking truth. Whether we know Christ already or whether we don’t yet know him, we ought to be seeking the truth. And the question is, “Where are you on your journey?” and “What is guiding your journey?” For most Americans, what is guiding their journey is their own sense of what is right and wrong. Their own sense of what might or might not be true. And that kind of guidance will get you a certain way down that road, but it will not get you to Jesus Christ, it will simply not get us to the truth.

God has to reveal the truth, because it is something that is simply beyond us. And this Christmas, God wants to speak to each one of us in a new way. God wants to give us an unexpected sign of grace, something that we wouldn’t predict, something that might even seem a little bit unorthodox. God wants to break through in a new way.

It is said that people generally are not able to see what they are not looking for. That is true in many different parts of life. It can be true in medicine, where the doctor expects to see something particular and so might miss the signs of the real thing. The signs might be clear, but if they are not looking for them, they won’t see them. It is also true for us as we try to solve the little problems of life. Often the obvious solution doesn’t come to us because we are not looking in the right direction.

It’s the same way with faith. We generally only see what we are wanting and expecting to see. Even as we read scripture, we often miss the truth because we are not looking for it. We are looking for confirmation of what we think we already know. Well this year, this Christmas, as you read the Christmas story, as you celebrate the giving of Jesus Christ, look for that unexpected gift, look for the surprising sign. Open your eyes to see what you are not looking for. Maybe even listen to a child, as the child experiences Christmas from an unexpected perspective. Or maybe even listen to what other religions are saying about Jesus Christ.

Lynn was a woman seeking the truth. And she began to seek the truth in Buddhism, because she was impacted by the suffering of the world and Buddhism seem to deal a lot with suffering. She began that path towards Buddhism, seeking an answer on how to deal with the suffering of the world. It was through her seeking an answer in Buddhism, that she was led back to Jesus Christ. Because as she thought more and more about suffering, she eventually looked back at Jesus in a new way, and saw that Jesus had also suffered through all of life. He had suffered pain of the heart, as well as pain of the body. She saw Jesus answering in a new way the questions she had been asking about suffering. Unfortunately, the way that the church had painted Jesus Christ for her, it was a half truth, just a happy story. It was only the victorious Christ, without the suffering Messiah, and she didn’t relate to that Jesus Christ. Because the church she grew up in wasn’t willing to look at the real Jesus Christ. They were comfortable in their religion.

God wants to show you something new of himself this Christmas. God may even want to use you to open someone else’s eyes and heart in a new way. This Christmas don’t keep Jesus boxed in. Follow the signs to the true Christ. Act on the truth you have been given. Let God change you.

May God give us the grace and the courage to open our eyes and our hearts to find him, to find the truth and to find the answers to our questions. Please join me as we pray.

Lord, we thank you for the gift of Jesus Christ. We thank you that you allow there to be many different paths to you, but all of them leading through Jesus Christ. And we thank you for your amazing grace, for your love that you have shown us in Jesus Christ and you continue to show us day by day. Not only Lord do we ask that you would open our eyes to see new bits of your truth, but that you would also give us the courage and the faithfulness to follow that truth wherever it leads, and that we would offer our whole lives to you as we come to Jesus. For we ask it in his name, and for his sake. Amen.