Scripture passage: Matthew 2:1-15
I don’t often jump for joy. I don’t often shout for joy, either.
In fact, years ago, after an important meeting went better than I could have imagined, I called a friend to talk about it as I drove back to the office.
“Are you excited?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, in about the same tone as if she had asked if I ate breakfast that morning.
“Where??? In your TOE?!!!”
We laughed about my lack of verbal enthusiasm then, but I have returned to that moment many times as I have found that I don’t quite know what to do with joy.
It’s not a new thing to me. Consider two of my favorite lines in two of my favorite books:
“…Elizabeth, agitated and confused, rather knew that she was happy, than felt herself to be so…” (from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen).
“’Anne Shirley!’” exclaimed Marilla. For once in her life she was surprised out of her reserve; she caught her girl in her arms and crushed her and her flowers against her heart, kissing the bright hair and sweet face warmly (from Anne of the Island, by L.M. Montgomery).
When I first read that line about Elizabeth knowing she was happy more than feeling it, it felt as though someone had been following my heart around, taking notes. And, though I grew up wanting to be Anne, it has been some time since I realized that there is plenty of Marilla in me – feeling deeply, but not quite letting it show, especially if it’s good. During a counseling session not long ago, I hesitantly said, “I think…I’m happy.” Indeed. I might think it, and feel it, but it doesn’t often show up on my face or outwardly in my body.
And that brings me to the Wise Men, or Magi, who visited Jesus and His family. Last week, I asked you to move the wise men in your nativity scenes across the room, if you could. That’s because the wise men weren’t there on the night Jesus was born! Matthew tells us that this group of scholars, or priests, or astrologers, arrived in Jerusalem sometime after Jesus was born. As the story unfolds, we learn that they first saw a star about two years before, and they took it to mean that a great king had been born in the nation of Israel. At some point, they decided to come and see this king, to worship Him and bring Him gifts. They stopped in Jerusalem to find out from King Herod where this new king had been born. King Herod and his own scholars and priests sent them on to Bethlehem, which had been identified as the Messiah’s birthplace by one of the prophets centuries earlier.
As they approached Bethlehem, they saw the star again, right over the place where Jesus was. Matthew 2:10 says that, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (NASB). This is one of those places where English does a poor job of conveying what actually happened. I consulted my own (language) scholars about this verse, and they told me that an adverb follows the Greek for “rejoice,” telling the extent of the action of rejoicing. My scholar reports: “The effect in the Greek is to communicate that their rejoicing was very visually physical and loud.”
Very visually physical and loud. What springs to mind when you consider that description? My guess is that it doesn’t look like the figurines in your nativity set.
Let’s look at the whole scene. A group of men from a foreign country, presumably speaking another language, showed up at the house. When they realized they were in the right place, and had found the right child, they rejoiced in a way that was probably more like My Big Fat Greek Wedding than the average American nativity scene. Eugene Peterson paraphrases it this way, “They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!”
Also in the scene were Mary and Joseph, parents of a toddler, and Jesus, the toddler. Obviously, there were cultural and technological differences from our own time, but to a great extent, parents are parents and toddlers are toddlers. What do you suppose that scene was like? Can you hear the shouts and see the gestures, and maybe the jumping, from the visiting magi? Can you imagine the looks on Mary and Joseph’s faces? Do you think Jesus hid behind His parents’ legs or went about His toddler business, ignoring the guests? How about when the guests fell to the ground and worshiped that toddler? Can you imagine Jesus tugging on one of their hats in curiosity?
How did Joseph and Mary receive the gold, frankincense, and myrrh from these men? They were a carpenter’s family who had had to move to Bethlehem just before Jesus’ birth. They almost certainly didn’t have gold, frankincense, and myrrh lying around in abundance. And, they couldn’t know it then, but those gifts would soon finance their escape to Egypt, as refugees fleeing violence. Can you imagine their eyes meeting as they packed up those gifts before they fled?
Taking the time to imagine that scene, according to what’s written in Scripture, stirs my wonder and awe at the story of Jesus. This week, it also causes me to stop and think about joy, and rejoicing. The magi’s joy showed up in their bodies. If we saw a photo of them, there would be no doubt in our minds that they were thrilled. If we had video and audio footage of them, it would be loud and exuberant. It would be different from how joy most often shows up in me.
Though Scripture does not direct us to imitate the wise men, it does command us to rejoice (Philippians 4). If we would be more like Jesus, that toddler who was also the Savior, we must learn to rejoice, even in the face of suffering (Hebrews 12). What do you suppose that might look like, for you, this week? Will you join me in considering joy in these next days?
What if we think about these questions?
- When have I visibly and audibly been unable to contain my joy? What was it, in those moments, that was different from other moments? (I’m making a timeline of moments.)
- What would it be like if I didn’t try to contain my joy? What would it look like, sound like, and feel like?
- What about people who don’t struggle to express their joy? What could I learn from them this week? What could they learn from me?
- How could this kind of joy move me on to worship?
No matter how the week turns out, may we know we’re in the right place, may we know we’re here at precisely the right time, and may we be unable to contain the joy that wells up in us.