Christmas and the Marmite Effect
Have you ever spread Marmite on toast? It's a British condiment made from yeast left over from beer brewing. It is dark, thick, and sticky, like a savory molasses. Marmite is hailed as the superhero of sandwich spreads because it’s bursting with vitamin B. Over the past century, it has come to the rescue of soldiers in the trenches of WWI, anemic mill workers in India, and malaria sufferers in Sri Lanka. But Marmite's flavor is so powerful that it is polarizing, winning as many friends as foes. This little jar of food paste has inspired some strong opinions. For years, the company's slogan was "Marmite: Love it or Hate it."
The birth of Jesus has a Marmite effect, inspiring equally passionate, polar responses. In a sense, the gospel's catchphrase could be: "Jesus: Love him or Hate him." This contrast is evident when we consider the opposite reactions of the wise men and Herod to the Messiah’s birth in Matthew's gospel.
The Response of the Magi
Everything about these mysterious Magi exudes a radiant love for their newborn King. First, they sought him. Matthew says they traveled "from the East" (Matthew 2:1), or literally, "from the rising of the sun." The terrain they traversed is some of the most treacherous on earth. How many months did they chase after that prophetic star? How many rivers and deserts did they cross? How many mountains did they scale? How many dangers did they face? But they were driven by their love for Christ.
Second, their love for Jesus is seen in their trust. Though we don't know the nation from which the wise men came, we know their radical journey of faith began with open bibles: "a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel," (Numbers 24:17), and "from [Bethlehem] shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days" (Micah 5:2). Indeed, the wisest thing about these wise men was that they read and believed the word of Christ in the Scriptures! It is a radical faith that clings to the Bible as the soul's compass, crying "Lord, wherever you call me I'll go. Whatever you ask of me, I'll give. All to Jesus, I surrender."
Third, the wise men's love for Christ crescendos in exuberant worship. Contrary to your mom's mantle nativity, the visits of Matthew's wise men and Luke's shepherds were not concurrent. The shepherds found "a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger" (Luke 2:12), but by the time the wise men arrived the baby had grown into a "child" (Matthew 2:11). Nevertheless, we can imagine the weary wise men wandering through the dark streets of Bethlehem, their necks craned, their eyes fixed intently upon the star, when suddenly it stopped, not over a palace or mansion, but over the home of a carpenter. At last, they found him, the "dear desire of every nation" and the "joy of every longing heart." They broke loose in the street and "rejoiced exceedingly with great joy" (Matthew 2:10). Now, I've never seen a nativity scene in which the wise men figurines were prostrate, flat on their faces before the little Lord Jesus, but that is precisely what happened when their faith became sight: "And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him" (Matthew 2:11). They not only gave Jesus the gift of their praises, they gave gold to the King of Kings, frankincense to Immanuel, "God with us," and myrrh to one born to die for the sins of his people. How these wise men loved Jesus!
The Response of Herod
But Christ’s birth awakened an equal opposite affection in Herod, Caesar's puppet-king of Judea. "He was troubled" (Matthew 2:3) when the wise men told him they were searching for the King of the Jews. And when Herod learned the Magi evaded him by returning home another way, his heart erupted in volcanic hatred: "Who is this king that would challenge my sovereignty? Who is he that I should bow down to him and serve him? Doesn't he know that I'm the king around here? Doesn't he know that we do things my way and for my glory? How I hate this king of the Jews! He must decrease, I must increase." Desperate to protect his power, Herod's rage broke out in a murderous frenzy which claimed the lives of countless baby boys in Bethlehem.
As Christmas approaches and we straddle the familiar threshold between years, as we take stock of our lives and "frisk our souls," we must remember that there is no neutrality when it comes to Christ. The Doobie Brothers were wrong: Jesus will not be “just alright” with you. You'll either love him or hate him. You will either bow to him as King of Kings and Lord of Lords or you will buck him as a rival who threatens your autonomy. Oftentimes, a Herodian resistance takes the form of polite indifference. It is one of Satan's most subtly sinister temptations: the appeal of lukewarm religion which produces law-abiding, tax-paying, churchy people who are lulled into a false sense of security, for they have never been truly convicted of their sin and convinced that Jesus is their only hope in life and death. They have never “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” because they have never felt the horror of wretchedness and the soul-soothing balm of sin forgiven by the blood of Christ. For American evangelicals, this tepid spirituality, this cultural Christianity, is a far more immediate threat to our souls than outright apostacy.
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis warned, "indeed the safest road to hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without, milestones, without signposts." God help us to choose another road, the heavenward path of the Magi. Driven by our love for him who loved us before he poured creation’s foundation, may we seek Jesus with all that we are, no matter the cost. May we trust his word with a childlike faith. And may we worship him as our soul's chief treasure.
Jim McCarthy is the Senior Pastor of the First Presbtyerian Church in Hattiesburg, MS
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