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12.18.16 The Thirteenth Day of Christmas Matthew 2:1-12 Sermon Summary

by on December 20, 2016

The practice of some Armenian churches teaches us important lessons about Christian faith and devotion: theology is more important than history, and peace is found in Jesus as Lord and King.

Summary Points

  • The unique country of Armenia
  • Why Christians celebrate Christ’s birth on different dates
  • The timelessness of Jesus’ life
  • What the Magi teach us about true faith and peace

The ancient country of Armenia is reputed to be the first to declare Christianity as its national religion. The map below shows the territory of the Armenians before and after the genocide committed by Turkey from 1915 to 1920. Nearly 1.5 million people, or 75% of Armenians, were killed or displaced. Hitler reportedly cited the success of the Armenian genocide in arguing for his attack on Poland.

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One branch of Armenian Christianity celebrates Christmas on what has come to be called “Old Christmas Day.” Before telling you when that celebration will occur this year, I need to offer some history.

First, Julius Caesar promulgated the official Roman calendar, known as the Julian calendar, in 46 BC. At that time, the year was calculated as 365.25 days. Most people today still say this is the time it takes for the earth to revolve around the sun. In actuality, it takes 365.242199 days, which means the Julian calendar is off 11 minutes, 14 seconds each year.

After some 40 years of recalculations, it was Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 who finally offered a corrected calendar. By that time, the Julian calendar was off by 10 days, so in that year October 5 was followed by October 15. Even though in this instance the church was perfectly aligned with—was even the leading source of—scientific truth, some countries hesitated to adopt the Gregorian reform. Protestant countries refused because they didn’t want to recognize the authority of the pope. Others refused because of their tradition. Greece was the final country to adopt the Gregorian calendar in . . . wait for it . . . the 1920s!

Second, the Feast of the Nativity (what we call Christmas) wasn’t officially assigned to December 25 until the early 4th century in Rome. In large part, the church was motivated by competition with the surrounding culture. In other parts of the church, the Feast of the Nativity was celebrated as part of Epiphany on January 6. “Epiphany” is Greek for “appearance” and it refers here to the manifestation of Jesus’ divinity. Epiphany celebrations recognized four instances when Jesus’ divinity was revealed: at his baptism, when he turned water to wine in Cana, when the Magi visited him, and at his nativity.

Today most of Christianity celebrates the Feast of the Nativity as we do on Christmas, December 25, and Epiphany on January 6. The emphases on these days are divided. In the West, December 25 is the Nativity, and January 6 is the visit of the Magi. In the East, December 25 is the visit of the Magi (as part of the Nativity), and January 6 is Christ’s baptism. This is why, by the way, Christmas is a season that lasts twelve days from December 25 through January 5.

Third, some Eastern Orthodox churches don’t recognize December 25 as the Feast of the Nativity. They celebrate the Nativity on January 6. In some cases, the celebration is January 7 due to the irregularity of the calendar. And in one case, the Armenian Orthodox Church, they still don’t follow the Gregorian calendar, so their January 6 celebration of Nativity is our January 19! So you could conceivably celebrate the Feast of the Nativity on December 25, January 6 or 7, and January 19 if you were so inclined and willing to travel.

Here, finally, is the point. The actual date of Christ’s birth is unknown. If Luke’s story of the “shepherds abiding their flocks by night” is historical, then it would be in the Spring, perhaps March, when such abiding occurs. So when it comes to the Bible, we have to remember that it is less about historical accuracy and more about theological testimony.

The Bible answers questions not about human history, but about God’s future. Asking the question, “What does Bible say but about our future with God?” recognizes the priority of theological issues over historical ones. More to the point, the life of Jesus—each part of it: his birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return—is outside of history. It is for everybody in every time. The whole of Jesus’ life is for every day.

The Feast of the Nativity—Christmas—is about Jesus’ birth and our rebirth. It is about God with us and us with God. It is about divine peace through reconciliation in contrast to human peace through vanquishing one’s enemies. It is about God’s dream for ALL nations, not just ancient Israel and not just Christian nations like Armenia. And all these meanings are included in the story of the Magi.

What we learn from the story of the Magi is that you can’t trust what you hear—especially from politicians. King Herod was nominally Jewish. He had the title “King of the Jews,” but only because he was a puppet of Rome.

Herod boasted impressive achievements. He built palaces for himself, reconstructed the Jewish Temple, and provided advanced infrastructure.

Herod used violence and threats of violence to overcome his political competitors and promote and maintain his narcissistic, ego-maniacal, insecure position.

Matthew tells us that the Magi “heard” Herod. I suspect they knew something was up. Herod requested to meet with them “in secret and inquired as to the exact time of the appearance of the star.” Only then does he direct them to Bethlehem. They had to have sensed that he was already plotting something nefarious. (Remember, after Herod realizes the Magi have betrayed him, he kills all the male children in Bethlehem under two years old—in accordance with the timing of the star’s appearance.)

When the Magi set out for Bethlehem, the star reappears. They apparently had lost track of it, which is why they stopped for directions from Herod in Jerusalem. But there they learned something of great importance to believers in Jesus.

They learned that what politicians say doesn’t address our deepest needs and desires. Even without the prophet (since they weren’t Jewish), they were trying to find a new king who could be known as, “Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, Mighty God, and Prince of Peace.” (see Isaiah 9:6)

Herod was not that that king. He would not become that king. He didn’t want that kind of kingdom.

Those who seek true and lasting peace cannot look to a man who is placed in power by questionable means. It does not come from a man who consults religious leaders only to enhance his political image.

Those who seek true and lasting peace follow the course of the Magi. It comes from seeking the light of Christ, and when finding him, paying homage to him. Peace results from avoiding the Herods of the world and returning home another way—by the way of Jesus Christ.

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