A Christmas Eve Sermon (2021)
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 when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matt 2:1-2).
“We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. …And you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Pet 1:16-19).
Have you ever wondered what became of the magi? Like a shooting star, they appear in the scriptures, behold the glory in the manger, offer gifts and vanish from the historical record. Did they simply return to the east and continue their astrological arts? Did they continue to worship the King of the Jews? Did those wise men commit themselves to the wisdom of the Christ? Will we see them in Heaven someday?
Every Christmas Eve, pastors ask similar questions about those who show up to worship the newborn king and then seemingly disappear until the next Christmas or maybe Easter. Where do they go? Are such momentary encounters with the Messiah sufficient? Shouldn’t authentic worship of the Christ lead a person onward into a life of daily devotion and discipleship?
This Christmas Eve I want to examine two stars—the famous Star of Bethlehem that led the magi to the manger for a momentary glimpse at God’s glory, and a lesser known star that I believe can lead us onward from such momentary encounters and into a more ongoing process of formation and spiritual maturity.
The mystery on the mountain was equally as mesmerizing as the magic in the manger. So, I also ask what happened after those three disciples went back down the mountain and returned to life in the flatlands? Did their strange experience on the mountain have any lasting impact? Or did the memory of it fade like the glory fading from Moses’ face at Sinai? Is it like that emotional final night at Bible camp, when one goes forward during the altar call and surrenders their life to Jesus (only to do it again the following year)?
Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a later recollection by one of the disciples, looking back and reflecting on that awesome spiritual experience? Imagine we found Peter’s diary and he gave his own application on what that experience could mean for every follower of Jesus? Well, we do have something like that!
The second letter attributed to Peter includes his own recollections of that mountaintop moment, and introduces another star that I think is more meaningful than the star that led the magi to the feet of Jesus. Before we get to that star, another word about that more famous star.
Let’s give thanks to God for all the creative means He’ll use to get people to the feet of the Savior and to a saving encounter with King of Kings! He uses spiritual retreats and mission trips, Bible studies and sermons, evangelistic crusades and street corner preachers, a walk in the woods or a tragedy in one’s life. God’s grace scandalizes many in the unlikely methods he’ll use to sneak up on a sinner and win them to the Kingdom. He even used the astrological arts forbidden by the Scriptures to reach some wise guys from the East.
Still, leading people to a powerful encounter with Christ is often easier than leading people onward from that emotional buzz and into an ongoing process of discipleship. If the Star of Bethlehem got the magi to the Christ, might there be another star to lead them forward in their newfound faith? Let’s turn now to Simon Peter, now old and gray and at death’s door, and read his remembrance of that holy moment on the mountain. This was Peter’s Star of Bethlehem experience, yet unlike the magi the star Peter speaks of is waiting to lead him back down the mountain and stay with him for the rest of his days. And us too.
LET JESUS GROW UP IN US
In the 2006 comedic film Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Will Ferrell plays NASCAR superstar Ricky Bobby who offers a memorable dinner prayer where he insists on praying to the infant Jesus:
Ricky: ’Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent.
Carley: ‘Hey, um… you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him baby. It’s a bit odd and off puttin’ to pray to a baby.’
Ricky: ‘Well, look, I like the Christmas Jesus best when I’m sayin’ grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grown-up Jesus, or Teenage Jesus, or Bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.’
This silly scene raises a serious point: many would prefer to keep Jesus a small and cuddly presence in our lives. We would rather adore a cooing infant than take orders from a commander and King. We would rather give Jesus a small shoebox size corner of our heart than let Him take over our entire being. Like the magi, we are happy to offer our annual gift at the manger, but less ready to follow His lead the rest of the year. Like Ricky Bobby we prefer Christmas Jesus best, and so we stunt Jesus’s growth inside us.
In Peter’s second letter, he urges Christians to move beyond a momentary encounter, and invites us into the lifelong process of growing into Christian maturity. He writes:
3 His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature…
Notice the goal of Christian faith for Peter here is not getting into Heaven after he dies, but tapping into the divine power now in order to cultivate a more godly life—a life that somehow participates in Christ’s own glory and goodnessand nature!
He goes on to give us a kind of “ladder of Christian formation” whereby our faith becomes effective and productive as we “make every effort” (in partnership with the Spirit, of course) to grow:
5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ…10 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Peter wasn’t content to just behold the glory of Christ on that mountain; he wanted to experience that glory and goodness growing inside him bit by bit. And notice Peter’s tone has a sense of urgency, like a spiritual father hastily scribbling out his last words on his deathbed. “After I’m gone,” Peter essentially writes, “you must never forget these things I have told you.” In his words:
12 So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. 13 I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, 14 because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 15 And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.
Remember what things exactly? In one sense, the entire letter. But more particularly all believers need to never forget or doubt that “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (1:3). We are called to a life of formation into Christlikeness, not just isolated moments of adoration and worship.
The magi followed the star to the manger, and beheld the glory of Almighty God in the face of the infant. Peter followed Jesus to the glorious mountain where he beheld the glory of God in the dazzling light and a mysterious cloud. With death knocking on his door, the elderly Peter recalls that magical moment to help lend authority to his dying admonitions:
We were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain” (1:16-18).
Both moments were electrifying. Both moments made a deep impression no doubt. But only Peter gives us a greater Star to guide us onward from the majestic glory of the manger and the mountain into the valleys and flatlands of ordinary living.
A GREATER STAR
The magi disappear from history, leaving us no evidence that the glory of the manger remained with them as they went on their way. But Peter and his companions walked down that sacred mountain into a bright new morning, following a path illuminated by a greater and more enduring star:
“You will do well to pay attention to [the prophetic message], as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (1:19).
The bright morning star was actually the planet Venus, the bright light visible in the morning sky, signaling the arrival of a new day. Jesus referred to himself as the “bright morning star” in Revelation 22:16, and it was the reward promised faithful Christians in Revelation 2:28. Christ himself wants to rise ever higher, ever larger, ever brighter in our hearts.
While the rising of this star in believer’s hearts no doubt reaches its climax and fulfillment at Christ’s return, this gradual rising begins now in this life. Christ himself is the divine spark that ignites each regenerated soul, and the indwelling Spirit fans that flame into a fire that can grow hotter and brighter in the believer. The Cloud of God’s Shekinah glory became flesh in the manger. The Cloud on the mountain that Peter was afraid to enter has now entered Him! The face that “shone like the sun” (Matt 17:2) on the mountain is now the Sonshine radiating from our hearts.
Isaiah looked forward to the Day, saying: “Rise up and shine, for your light has come…the Lord will rise upon you, and His shining-greatness will be seen upon you” (Isaiah 60:1-2). Paul announced the arrival of that new morning when he declared that “God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).
The star that led the magi to the baby Jesus has been eclipsed by the Star that can lead us to mature faith in the Jesus who is growing up in us. As we follow the wisdom of the wise men of old and let the Morning Star be our guide, Paul’s pastoral longing is realized in us: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). Christ is gradually formed in us as we allow His Star to rise higher, brighter and larger in us. Toward this end Paul’s prayer is “that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called” (Eph 1:18).
SUPERNOVA THROUGH SUPER-SURRENDER
My knowledge of astrophysics is extremely limited, but a simple Google search will tell you a few basic things about the death of a star. When large stars run out of fuel, they swell into red supergiants. They try to keep alive by burning different fuels, but eventually blow themselves apart in a huge supernova explosion. For a week or so the supernova outshines all of the other stars in its galaxy. Then it fades and all that is left is a tiny, dense object—a neutron star or a black hole—that swallows up anything within its orbit.
If you’ll allow me to press the metaphor to astronomical heights, the world witnessed the death of the Morning Star 2,000 years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem. As darkness came over the land and as the earth shook and temple curtain was torn, the World’s True Light and bright morning star went supernova on the cross. All of the dark energy of sin and death and destruction and rebellion was sucked into the gravitational pull of the dying Star of David. Jesus exhausted its power as the Cross and Tomb became the blackhole that swallowed up the worst that evil could deal out. If a blackhole could speak and if the sound of its words weren’t immediately sucked into nothingness, the Blackhole left by the death of Christ’s Star might have uttered, “It is finished.”
What might it mean to have the Light of the World going supernova in our own hearts as we “put to death” the deeds of our former life, and daily let the love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit swallow up and/or burn up evermore of our old self-oriented existence? If a living star needs to burn fuel in order to keep shining, then let us daily confess our sins and commit them as fuel for the Holy Spirit’s fire inside us. Christ’s light and love is a consuming fire—a fire not to be feared and avoided, but embraced as part of the pathway toward participating in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4) and means of growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (3:18). We ourselves can someday “go supernova” if we will only get busy cultivating of a lifestyle of super-surrender. As we become a receptacle divine energy, and a mirror reflecting God’s goodness and light back into creation, we will, in Paul’s words, “shine like stars in a world full of crooked and perverse people” (Phil 2:15).
BACK DOWN THE MOUNTAIN
Back on that Sacred Mountain, Peter’s mistake was to try to build shelters and set up camp in that awesome place (cf. Luke 9:33). “Let’s stay in this euphoric moment forever!” Peter seems to suggest. But Jesus wants to give the three disciples something far greater and more enduring than a temporary spiritual buzz. He wants to send them back down the mountain with a spark of the glorious light igniting a fire in their inner-being.
This message was originally given on Christmas Eve 2021 in a small church full of regular attenders. Meanwhile, other larger churches were filled with countless so-called “Chreasters”—people who attend worship services twice a year on Christmas and Easter (=Chreasters). Many are content to follow the Star to Christ once or twice a year, to offer their gift and experience a momentary rush of sacred serenity.
Sadly, most of these folks will walk away with only the fading memory of the tiny flickers of candlelight dotting the room during Silent Night. We can feel glad that those tiny flames were not hidden under a bowl, but held up high to end the service as wax melted onto nervous parents’ laps by children insisting they are old enough to hold their own candle this year.
Still, what a tragedy to settle for holding a candle once a year when we’ve been in invited to be the lamp stands upon which the Light of the World shines for all to see! We’ve been called to be the House of the Rising Son! Perhaps we give those wise men too much credit for their momentary brush with the Divine Light of the Stable. Daniel tells us those who are truly wise will not merely follow a distant star in the night sky. Rather, “those who are wise will shine as bright as the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness will shine like the stars forever” (Dan 12:3).
My benediction before sending people out of the warm candlelit sanctuary into the darkness of a cold Minnesota night was to hand each person a little wooden star to keep in their pocket saying, “You will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).
Lord Jesus, I am open to your light. Shine in me this year, rising ever higher, ever larger, ever brighter. Swallow up all of my sin and darkness in the inescapable gravitational pull of your great love. Go supernova in me as I practice super-surrender in my daily walk with you. Amen.