Christmas is upon us, which means there are lots and lots of preparations to do. Apparently in the UK, each Christmas we write and send around 750 million Christmas cards; we will cook some 10 million turkeys; and we will go crazy on presents. I don’t know about you, but that amount of preparation leaves me feeling exhausted, if I wasn’t already!
When I think of preparing for Christmas, I often think of the magi from the Bible account written by Matthew. Now, there are lots we don’t know about these wise men. We don’t know that they were kings, for instance – the Bible text refers to them as magi, who were more academic authorities than ruling ones. Next, we don’t know that there were three of them! We are told they brought three presents, which might lead us to assume there was one each, but the Bible doesn’t actually say. And then third, we don’t know where they came from. Matthew’s account simply says, ‘the east’. Tradition suggests they came from Persia – which is modern-day Iran. But we can’t be completely sure.
But there is something we can be sure of about these magi, and that is that they were people well prepared. They came because they had been carefully studying the stars. They came because they had thought, read and considered. They came prepared for a long journey. This wasn’t a trip around the corner on a whim – it was a careful, planned expedition.
Yet for all their planning and preparation, their Christmas wasn’t quite what they expected. Perhaps you can relate to the experience of these magi.
Often we put in such great plans and preparation for Christmas, only to find that the experience of Christmas is not what we expected. Especially this Christmas, in the midst of a pandemic, our hope and expectations of seeing family and friends are not probably what we first wanted. Maybe you hoped to be bathed in warmth and light at Christmas, only to have a power cut or a boiler breakdown. Maybe your experience is that you are sold a picture of Christmas of joy and peace, but your experience ends up being one of loneliness, sadness and disappointment. Christmas doesn’t always work out as we expect.
Listen in to the experience of the wise men, because for them Christmas ended up being different to what they expected. They came looking for a king. They had seen a sign in the stars and interpreted it as a new king of the Jewish people. So they came to Jerusalem looking for the king. It’s what you would have expected. The big city, capital: where a king would be born.
But the wise men had a different experience. The king they were looking for was in a very different place than they expected. He was in that little town of Bethlehem, not the big city of Jerusalem; he was in a stable not a fancy maternity unit; he was in an animal’s feeding trough, not a comfortable cot.
Indeed, Christmas is all about the unexpected. At Christmas, we find that God has come to us and shown himself to us.But he has shown himself in way we probably don’t expect. He has shown himself in the small and helpless, in the form of a tiny baby, in a small town stable.
The unexpected runs all the way through Jesus’ life. He walked closely with God, and the people of the day expected the religious to shun those who were difficult and disreputable. But unexpectedly Jesus welcomed the imperfect and the irreligious, people like you and me.
If Jesus’ life was unexpected, much more was his death. Nailed to a Roman cross, a death reserved for the worst offenders and despicable criminals. Here was a righteous innocent man unexpectedly dying the death of a criminal.
And unexpectedly he said he did it for you and for me; taking the punishment we deserve, showing unexpected mercy.
And the greatest unexpected moment came three days later, as his followers went to his tomb expecting to find a body. Unexpectedly they found an empty tomb, found a risen Jesus, found hope and new life in the face of death and grief. Truly unexpected, and truly wonderful. Let’s hold on to that amazing truth however our Christmas turns out this year.