Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.
12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
Welcome to #HotTopics
This morning we are embarking on a new sermon series that will span the five weeks of January that we're calling "Hot Topics." Today, we'll hear some of what God's Word has to say on the seemingly omni-present, ever-expanding age of technology. In the coming weeks, we'll hear from David, Jonathan and Joe as they unpack Christology, Diversity, Rivalry, and finally, Eternity. Our goal in this series is to touch on a few of the topics requested by our body, that we may mature in Christ in order to worship & enjoy God more fully, love one another more deeply, and make a greater impact in our communities among these Cities. Before we dive in, let's read our sermon text in Matthew 2 and then we'll pray together.
High King of Heaven, please allow us this morning to download your power to the weary and outdated hard drives of our souls, so that in trusting you more, Jesus may live in our hearts. Lord, install your love in us, and increase the processing power of our minds to understand more fully the brilliance of your grace, and to know more and more the love of your Son Jesus that breaks the tired algorithms of this world. We ask that, in your mercy, your greatness would fill up our emptiness. Please help us, Father. Amen. (adapted from Ephesians 3:14-21)
First, Why Technology?
This past November, Pastor Michael and I attended a conference on Faith & Work that was hosted by Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Michael and I are eager in the coming weeks and months to share the principles, ideas, and practicals we received from that weekend with you. We are planning a discipleship-based workshop concept that will include teaching and networking, with the goal of helping each of us better understand how to glorify God and serve our neighbors through our jobs. I'd like to read quickly the teaser trailer for the conference, which got us on a plane, two trains, and a bus over to the Upper West side of Manhattan on fairly short notice.
Technology has dominated our cultural moment. It's abstract and specific, tangible and pervasive. It's what we're both afraid of and in awe of. Despite our misgivings, we put a lot of faith in technology. So it’s no surprise that we are obsessed with the tools we invent. Yet often lost in our grand impressions is this: technology exists for humanity, not the other way around. The central question we ask of technology ends up sounding a lot like a spiritual one: who is ruling whom?" (Redeemer Presbyterian, New York City, Center for Faith & Work, 2016 Conference).
And just so we're all on the same page on what we mean by technology, during one of the keynote talks titled Technology & the Biblical Story, an author and professor named Dr. Derek Schuurman defined technology as "a distinct cultural activity in which human beings exercise freedom and responsibility in response to God by forming and transforming the natural creation, with the aid of tools and procedures, for practical ends or purposes (A Biblical Perspective on Technology, CFW 2016)."
Given that backdrop, my hope this morning is that we would, 1) view technological advance with realistic hope rather than fear, 2) understand that tech is not our Savior, and 3) finally we would not be conformed by the patterns (tweets, posts, hashtags, apps, and devices) of this world, but rather be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2)
There are three main points in this sermon. First, what can we learn about the magi and their usage of technology? Second, where have we gone wrong with technology? And lastly, how can we be saved? So the three points today will be: 1) The Mysterious Magi, 2) The Trouble with Technology, and 3) The Lord of Technology.
The Mysterious Magi
Let's begin today by going back. As Jonathan mentioned in the welcome, historically, Christmas is celebrated as a season consisting of 12 days, ending with the Feast of Epiphany. Epiphany is a fancy word that means simply, ‘the Revealing,’ celebrating Jesus being revealed to us. So I'll start by asking... other than a new iPad or pair of Bluetooth headphones, what does Christmas have to do with technology? How in the world could ancient, mystical, camel-riding, treasure-chest-toting so-called "wise men" relate to the seemingly modern, futuristic topic at hand?
There are two quick questions I want to ask of our text in Matthew 2 in this initial section. First, who are these wise men, and where did they come from? Second, how did they use technology in their quest?
So taking them in order... first off, who are these so-called "wise men from the east" that traversed afar to Bethlehem using various technologies of saddles, caravans, treasure chests, scrolls, maps, and ancient navigational equipment?
Well… you guys know the classic American Christmas carol, "We Three Kings?" “We Three Kings of Orient Are, bearing gifts we traverse afar; field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star…” That carol was written in the mid-1800’s by a worship pastor named John Hopkins for a Christmas pageant in New York City. For that pageant, John wrote complementary verses for each of the three gifts given to the King-child (gold - king, frankincense - priest or God, myrrh - healer or sacrifice). Over the past two millennia many scholars have speculated that these gifts may have been given by three kings, scholars, or astrologers hailing from ancient Eastern nations. [Extended edition: This story actually shares some similarities to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, if you recall the legend of the mythical three brothers and their extraordinary gifts… Those legendary hallows eventually came to the so-called Boy Who Lived, an unlikely young hero who would become the ultimate sacrifice in order to save the world from terrible Evil.]
A few years ago, Pastor David preached a great sermon at Bethlehem on the magi. In that sermon, David joked, “'We Three Kings' is a wonderful Christmas song... but these dudes aren't kings. They are pagan astrologers, not too far from what we'd call sorcerers and wizards. [It’s not unlike Merlin,] Gandalf and Dumbledore coming to worship the baby Jesus.” [Extended edition / nerd joke: I’m sure Dumbledore would have quipped something like his famous quote, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to follow the light,” as an aging Gandalf howled at a stray donkey, “You shall not PASS!”]
The text itself doesn’t say there were three, and it doesn’t directly tell us they were kings. The point I want to make here is that whether there were as few as two, or as many as twelve kingly astrologer-wizards, these guys were mysterious. Mystery (something beyond human understanding) is a truly a good gift from God, especially when we live in the Google-world of feeling like we can know anything and everything within three seconds. It's good for the soul to be reminded that God is God, and we are not. Also, if God wanted us to know the names and genealogies of these men, it would be here… but they are not, and that's because the magi are not the main point of this story. The magi simply point to the Hero whose birth most of the world continues to celebrate some 2,000 years later. So don’t get sucked in the legend of the magi like I did at points this week. Let’s not forget why they traveled afar… “Born a King on Bethlehem plain, Gold I bring to crown Him again, King forever, Ceasing never, Over us all to reign.” These wise men tell Herod themselves, “we saw his star when it rose [in the east] and have come to worship him.”
So that’s a bit about who these mysterious magi are… Now, why is it important that they came “from the East?” It’s the only biographical or geographical clue given to us on the true identity of these men, so what are we to make of that? Among the four gospel accounts, the gospel of Matthew is the most concerned with convincing people that Jesus is the Son of David; namely, that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the Messianic prophecies strewn throughout Jewish history. Matthew 1:22 “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet… (and over 15 times more, throughout the book)” It seems that Matthew is trying to give us a clue pointing towards where this specific "magical" episode was predicted several centuries previously.
In Isaiah 60 (on screen), which is pretty clearly about the coming of the Messiah-King, I want to highlight just a couple key phrases that drive home who these Magi were and the part they play.
2 darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you…
3 nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
4 … they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from afar…
… 5 the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6 A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.
… 7 they shall come up with acceptance on my altar,
and I will beautify my beautiful house.”
How incredible is this text? It predicts the origins of these kingly wizards (Midian, Ephah, Sheba), and even their gifts of “gold and frankincense,” along with their purpose for travel, namely to bring “good news, the praises of the Lord” and to "beautify my beautiful house." Does this breath fresh life into the old story of the magi for you? It sure did for me this week as I studied it anew. God is so clearly in charge of history and the future. He can see 800 years into the future with perfect precision (from Isaiah to Matthew, and from 2017 to 2817). He knew every single hair you’d have on your head every single day of your life. He is the great Author, and the great King, and he’s written Himself into the story because He wants to meet you, rescue you, and adopt you as his very own forever!
At this point you may be wondering… I get the Magi bit, but when is he going to get to the technology part? To that I’d say, right now! Now that we've delved into the mystery of the Magi, let’s get on with the more obvious part - their use of technology for good.
Prior or during their journey, the wise men must have used or purchased technology to craft their gifts for Jesus. Gold, for example, must be mined, purified, shaped, and polished with tools and equipment to go from raw material to finished product. Frankincense is a valuable antiseptic medicinal oil derived from the resin of a middle eastern tree that must be ground and purified into its final form using various technologies [Frankincense is actually still produced today using similar methods, and interestingly enough, 80% of the world’s supply comes from Somalia]. In order to make Myrrh, you literally stab trees with spears, and they bleed a gum-like substance that becomes a rare perfume that heals and potentially even intoxicates you. So as you can see, these wise men found a way to use the best technology of their day to create the most valuable products possible to give to a baby King worthy of worship. Simply put, they worshipped Jesus through technology, and they used their gifts to bless others.
I mean, these are some incredibly expensive gifts for complete strangers to gave Jesus and his family (“the wealth of the nations will come to you…”). Can you imagine Elon Musk visiting a two-month-old baby in Shakopee, Minnesota and bestowing upon him a Tesla Model S electric car, a SpaceX Mars transport rocket, and a SolarCity Gigawatt battery? Twitter would probably say something like… either Elon has finally lost his mind, or that kid must be God.
To summarize this first and main point... the magi had mysterious origins and expensive gifts crafted with advanced technology, they must have observed and followed a star in the east across many miles using navigational technology, and ultimately, they used those gifts to worship Jesus and bless others.
The Trouble with Technology
Now that we’ve seen the good example of the usage of technology laid forth by the appropriately named “wise men,” let’s get down into some real talk about our own experience with technology. Do we use it to worship God and love others? Do you? Let’s examine our hearts for a moment.
Think about your last few days. What did you use the good gift of technology for? What did you do with your phone or laptop? What did you watch on Netflix? What was the state of your heart during your daily or weekly scroll-fest on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter? How often did you use technology to sin against God and against your friends or family? How often did you use it to worship God and love others?
I'll share a quick story on where my own use of technology has caused separation rather than connection. I work at Target as a manager in inventory management & supply chain. During seasons like Christmas, when gifts are flying off the shelves and inventory levels seem to be always too high or too low, my work email, which is also on my phone, can go a little bonkers. Now the original intention of that setup can be very convenient and helpful, namely, that when I'm at work or on the way home (on the bus), I can quickly respond to an email and make sure my team is supported. But in that moment when the high-importance email comes in from an executive (that really could wait an hour), while I'm eating lunch with my family, what will I do? Will I cut myself off from the people I love sitting right next to me in order to serve my email inbox? You rang, master? Most of the time, I fail in those moments, and without a word, I disappear into phone email mode and ignore my wife and kids. That is wrong.
Let’s go back to Isaiah to try to acquire some wisdom like the wise men… in the beginning of his writings, chapter 2 [on screen], the prophet laments that God’s people live in a land “filled with silver and gold [otherwise known as things of the east, where the fortune-tellers/magi came from], and there is no end to their treasures… Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made… [but] the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.” Doesn't that sound a little bit like America today? A land with no end to our technological treasures, where we allow ourselves to be ruled by our devices, our email, our tweets and texts, by what Steve Jobs magical fingers have made!
In his talk during that F&W conference, Tim Keller said, "It's important that we show the world how not to demonize or worship tech. Idolatry is always a problem... you make an idol out of metal or wood, and then you say "save me!" When you look to technology to do what only God can do, it will become a demon, and it will eat you." [Pause]
So that’s the bad news… but there is some very good news!
The Lord of Technology
The good news, and this is our final point, is that Isaiah and Matthew show us that in the darkest night, in the coldest season, Emmanuel God would come. His parents were told by a magical being to call him Jesus, on purpose, “because He will save his people from their sins.” Jesus was born in Bethlehem that night, and that was good news for the magi, even though they dwelt in a land associated with wealth, splendor, human pride, sorcery, and idolatry. They redeemed the treasures of their land by offering them to the King of the Universe. The solution is not to do away with the technology that you happen to be using to sin, as that is only a temporary band-aid. We look to the magi, who used their technologies to behold the glory of Jesus, and to bless the people around them, even a poor family from a far away country. The good news of the King who had come to reign dropped them to their knees in exceedingly great joy, and that message can do the same to us. That message of grace to heathen outsiders living in a land of luxury and technology transformed those wizards into wise men, and that King promises to do the same for us, if we would turn to Him, open our hands and our treasures, and worship Him.
[Extended edition: In heaven, even technology developed with evil purposes will be redeemed. Micah 4 says, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.]
That brings us to the table… where we have not just wheat and grapes, but bread and wine [thank you David], crafted by human technology into the physical reminder that our Lord Jesus became a fragrant Frankincense offering for us, as he was crucified upon a tree being wounded and dripping blood, anointed with myrrh and put in a tomb, but three days later rising again like the Star in the East to reign forever as King over a city with streets of gold. If these magi-turned-wise-men were able to open their treasures in utter joy for a boy King, seeing dimly and partially, how much more can we open our hearts to the One who we know came to save us and love us for all eternity?
Thank you for the good gift of technology
We confess that we often either worship it or demonize it
We need your grace to break in just like you broke onto the dark scene of Bethlehem those many years ago
Please help us Lord, and make us people who can transform and renew this city because we've been changed on the inside out. Amen.