Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12

Over the Christmas weekend I read a book that I purchased by David Baldacci entitled The Christmas Train.  OK those of you familiar with the book realize it’s a romance.  Yes the pastor succumbed to reading about how two people, who had been estranged for years, finally got together during – you guessed it – the days just prior to Christmas.  The romance is intensified since all the episodes occur on an Amtrak train departing from Washington, DC and bound for LA – uh, Los Angeles, that is, and not Lower Alabama.

As the caravan is on the move from one stop to the next, passengers encounter various situations regarding the weather, relationships, and self-examination.  Each finds himself or herself, at times, looking deep within the soul.  The Christmas Train carries a hodge-podge of individuals, representative of the American landscape – east coast, west coast, mid-west, even the mountains of eastern Kentucky, the rich and famous, the not so rich and famous, children, adults, male, female, African-American, white, and religious diversity.  The train finally reaches its destination on December 26.

When I finished the book I imagined what happened after everybody got off and went their own way.  People on the move from here to there.  Some with a purpose.  Some with no purpose.  And what of the train?  Another destination, of course.  Perhaps headed back east or north or south.  Here was a caravan of sorts on the move.  People are always on the move, aren’t they?  Even if they never go anywhere they are on the move.

It reminded me of Matthew’s account of another caravan that I call The Christmas Caravan.  It, too, was on the move from one place to the next, probably over a roundtrip course of three to four years.  Journeying, perhaps, a thousand miles or so, not on a Christmas Train but on Christmas Camels, this caravan was on its way to Christmas even though it had no idea it was Christmas. 

The passenger list was rather different from The Christmas Train‘s.  These were mostly the same kind of people.  How do you describe them?  Upper class.  Scientists.  Intelligentsia.  Astronomers.  Astrologers.  Pagans.  Foreigners.  Clearly, they “weren’t from around there” or “from around here” for that fact of the matter.  Of course in their caravan were servant types.  People I just described in that culture would have had servants. 

Which may speak to something else about these learned folk.  Because of their known benevolence, there were probably middle and lower class folks who traveled with them in their caravan, who, likewise, desired to see “the child who has been born king of the Jews”(Matthew 2:2).  Everybody had seen the star that was displayed in the heavens.  So maybe this Christmas Caravan was on the move with all kinds of people – like those described in David Baldacci’s novel.

Don’t you just love the story of the Magi or Wise Men?  It is most intriguing and gratifying.  I’m glad we’ve sung some of these hymns and carols that focus on the “kings”, even though the text never says they were kings and in all likelihood had no connection to royalty at all.  It never mentions the number.  There may have been only three; but, in all likelihood, there were a dozen or more.  “As With Gladness Men of Old,” “We Three Kings,” and “The First Noel” emphasize this fundamental story in the first Advent of Jesus – even if Jesus had already celebrated a birthday or two at the time of their arrival.

With their caravan nearing its destination, they arrived some five miles north of Bethlehem in Jerusalem and were greeted by a paranoid King Herod, who was not a legitimate king, by the way.  He was put in power by Rome and not Davidic descent.  The news the Magi brought to town scared old Herod to death as well as the city’s citizens.  Most English translations are rather weak in describing Herod’s reaction.  The Greek word translated “frightened” in the NRSV conveys the sense of great agitation.  Herod was greatly annoyed.  He was intolerably agitated.

He figured his rule was threatened and nobody was to get homage except him.  Notice the hypocrisy.  Herod was no practitioner of Judaism. If he were, he would have known where the Messiah would have been born.  Why all devotees of the Hebrew religion knew where the Anointed One of God would be born.  He had to get the leading preachers and scholars to tell him that it was Bethlehem in Judea.  Some journey he was on, don’t you think?   

You heard the text and what happened.  Herod sent them on their way instructing them to come and tell him after they had found the child so he could “also go and pay him homage” (Matthew 2:8).  Yeah, right.  They went to Bethlehem and worshipped the Christ and then offered him gifts associated with royalty.  They left by a different route for home.  Their Christmas Caravan was on the move again.

Here, at the outset of the Jesus Story in Matthew’s Gospel account, we get a glimpse of God’s purpose for humanity.  We see right off the bat that Jesus, the shining Light prophesied by Isaiah, came to bring salvation to His people – obviously the Jews.  But less obvious, because of arrogance and prejudice, we find that He brings salvation to all people as represented in these astrologers and their entourage from Iraq and maybe India.

Back then Jesus’ own people missed the reality that His mission was to all.  They shouldn’t have, though.  Again, Isaiah 60 was clear.  From “Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba . . . They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6)

Sometimes we “miss the train,” so to speak.  It is the train or caravan of proclaiming the praise of the Lord.  We forget that The Christmas Caravan is on the move continually proclaiming the praise of the Lord and that the Gospel is for anybody and everybody – not just our kind, mind you.  This is why Jesus came into our midst.  This is why He dwelled among humanity.  He came to teach us that there is only one kind:  people created in God’s image and likeness.  People are people.  People bleed red.  People have eyes and ears and noses and stomachs and gallbladders and fingers and toes.  People have hearts and brains.  People are always on the move.  People are drawn to something beyond themselves, even beyond their own religion.

The December 30, 2004 edition of USA Today contained a picture of a man squatting on one of the beaches in Thailand that was devastated by last year’s tsunami.  Presumably a Buddhist, he is holding what seems to be incense sticks as he prays for the soul of his sister who was swept out to sea as she sold goods to tourists at a beach resort.

Christmas is for people like that.  That’s why the caravan is to always be on the move in order to show someone, such as a Buddhist, a better way — which, in fact, is the Only Way.  That, of course, is the Way of Jesus Christ.  All of us are drawn to something beyond ourselves especially in times of great tragedy.  Presently our world has been drawn closer due to the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Asia.  Tragedy has a way of doing that.  I wonder.  Could it be that a tragedy had befallen the Wise Men and their company in their native land?  If so could it be that God provided a sign for them in the heavens that guided them to that which was beyond themselves where there was hope?  To a place, or more appropriately, a Person Who would do more for them than routine stargazing would?

Keep in mind that these folks were pagans.  Like that Buddhist man praying for his sister’s soul on that Thai beach, the Wise Men worshipped not the God of Abraham and Sarah.  But by the grace of the God of Abraham and Sarah they may have been exposed to Hebrew religion since Hebrew colonies had been established during the exile in Babylon some 570 or so years earlier.  The Magi were good people.  Seemed to be ethical and moral.  Yet they were astrologers.  They delved into horoscopes.  They were New Agers before the term came into vogue.  And I think God used their pagan new ageism to bring Light into their darkness.  They arrived in Bethlehem pagans.  They left believers in Jesus Christ.

In gathering on this Lord’s Day we are to tell, again, that Christ has manifested Himself to humanity and He wants all human beings to have a relationship with Him.  Each person has to choose, though.  It doesn’t happen automatically.  That’s why the caravan is to be on the move with the Jesus Story.

And what a Story it is!  It is a Story that exposes the most extraordinary means to manifest Jesus and His desire.  People like a virgin named Mary who carried a Baby whose Father was God Himself.  Things like a manger.  Things like a once in a lifetime phenomenon:  a super-star that appeared in the heavens to light the way with a Light for those in darkness.  An event like baptism.  Things like a towel and a washbasin.  A loaf of bread.  A cup of wine.  A cross.  How about an empty grave?  Oh, yes!

We enter a new civic year still celebrating Christmas. And we should since Christmas is about casting Light that has risen in Jesus Christ to a humanity that needs Jesus Christ.  The church is called to keep the caravan on the move.  The church is the caravan for that fact of the matter.  Yet the church tends to be the first to cast Christmas aside all too quickly and not the secular world. 

Oh, it is a dangerous thing for the church to cast Christmas aside too quickly – especially in light of the fact that we don’t hear “Merry Christmas” often even during the days prior to Christmas Day, but rather the somewhat bland “Happy Holidays.”  God knows we don’t hear “Merry Christmas” or in it’s original form, “Mighty Christmas,” after Christmas Day.  I don’t fault the Supreme Court or Congress for that.  I fault the church and I don’t mean this brick and mortar building.  I mean you and me. 

The caravan of the church tends to view Christmas like the rest of world to some degree.  It is only a day or week or two before December 25 and seemingly the church can’t wait for it to be over.  What we are to see is more than one day and a few days or weeks before.  We are to behold Christmas as an event, a season of the Christian year.  When we don’t, its importance is unrecognizable all year long.  Many cease with Merry Christmas on December 25.  What a shame.

As I was leaving the office for home Friday evening, my cell phone rang.  It was Tanner Medical Center.  A chaplain was needed in the ICU.  Neither the on call chaplain nor the back up on call chaplain could be located so I was randomly selected, having been on call last week.  I went and ministered, as best I could, to this family from out of town as they awaited the death of one of their kin.  On my way out I saw Kerry and Debbie Cooke, former members of Tabernacle.  Kerry now pastors a church here in Carrollton.  We talked for a bit, catching up with each other.  As I left, I said to them, “Merry Christmas!” 

Walking down the hall, I thought, “What in the world am I doing?  Christmas is over.  This is December 31.  You should have said ‘Happy New Year.'”  Then it dawned on me.  “Wait a minute.  I said the right thing.  It’s still Christmas.  It’s not over.  The caravan is still on the move.”  It was one of those Epiphany moments for me.  To everyone I met on my way out, which was just a few, I said, with a bit of enthusiasm, “Merry Christmas!”  And don’t you know I got a few strange looks?  One person, however, responded, “And Merry Christmas to you.”  I don’t know if this person was being sarcastic or not, but I liked the sound.  It reminded me of the importance of Christmas.

The first Christmas caravan recognized the importance of Christmas.  We can only speculate what that caravan did.  How glad I am that God has graced us with imagination.  Ponder this.  As the Magi and their caravan moved on, away from Bethlehem, to parts really unknown to us, surely they said to the people they encountered along the way to home, “Merry Christmas.” In other words that caravan shared the Good News of their exceedingly great joy by bearing witness to the Manifestation that had occurred in their lives:  namely, that the Light of the world had shined into their lives and made them different.  When they got home, they told the Story to all.

That caravan left Bethlehem knowing God was with them.  They had seen Jesus who was Emmanuel.  And they took Jesus with them in their hearts.  They were commissioned with the Great Commission even if they didn’t realize it.  Here at the beginning of Matthew’s Story is somewhat of a clue as to how it ends.  At this juncture is a  kind of “Go ye therefore and teach all nations . . . ” (Matthew 28:19).  I think the Magi did just that along with the others in their caravan.  On the move they and others met God.

Allow the imagination to continue.  Thirty-five, forty, fifty years later.  An apostle or two – perhaps Matthew and Thomas – show up in the lands of the Magi.  They begin to evangelize.  Can’t you hear the conversation?  I can hear some of those folks saying, “We’ve been telling the Story about the Child born King of the Jews, His birth and the manger.  Some of among us traveled to worship Him.  Obviously there’s more after that.  So please.  Tell us the rest of the Story – especially that part about the Cross and the Empty Tomb of which you’ve spoken.  Tell us that part again!” 

The Light has shined.  I pray we’ve seen it.  I pray The Christmas Caravan here at our church will always be on the move.  Let us move with renewed passion for Jesus.  Let us be faithful and obedient members of the caravan.  Let us go throughout the world especially in light of the Light that is shining in Shi Lanka and Indonesia and India and Thailand and all those places devastated by the earthquake and tsunami.  Let us pray for and love every nation on earth.  Let us join our caravan with other caravans of Christmas believers.  May the Christmas caravan never cease being on the move with the Story of the Child – His birth, His way of life, His teaching, His death, His resurrection, and His coming again.

The Christmas Caravan on the move.  Always.


Jimmy Gentry is Pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Carrollton, GA.

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