Matthew 2:1-12 (NIV)
The Magi Visit the Messiah
2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’[b]”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Last week we read the story of the Magi; you might have noticed that we read it this week, too! I asked the question, you know just out of curiosity, why do we call the Magi wise? And the question has stayed with me all week. What makes the wise men wise. Why do we have the story of the wise men at all? What is that story telling us?
So I have lots of questions and that always makes a story very interesting.
Why do we call the wise men wise? Was it because they saw a star many months before and started off a long, costly, tiring journey just to see where the whatever it was light ended up- because what kind of star points to a specific place on earth. But they followed some kind of light that led them to Jerusalem, asking a lot of questions about a King, a Messiah, about to be born.
It makes sense they would hunt around Jerusalem, that’s where you would expect a King to be born in a palace right? It makes sense they would ask Herod, he was Jewish, maybe it was his son who was born.
But then we have that very awkward sentence in verse 3 “ When King Herod heard this (that the Magi were asking about a baby born to be King of the Jews) – He was disturbed – well that makes sense – after all he is King of Judea, and therefore the Jews, OK appointed by Rome but still, he is the King, but the sentence goes on: and all of Jerusalem with him. Why is Jerusalem disturbed, wasn’t Jerusalem waiting for a messiah like the rest of Judea.
Nope, they weren’t, at least many of them weren’t, because they had been appointed by Herod, they owed him their positions as high priests and judges. They enjoyed their lifestyle and power because of Herod and a new King, who knows, he might bring back the Hasmonean priests and judges.
So the Roman appointed king and his aristocratic cronies are worried about a bunch of astrologers and their entourage who have been following a star for months because that star told them the king of the Jews was to be born.
So we have some rich Gentiles, pagans who want to find the baby to worship him and some rich powerful Jewish elite who are disturbed by the birth, who got along with the old king just fine.
And the Magi, well, they just keep following the star all the way to Bethlehem where the star stops. And they do exactly what they set out to do. They see the child with his mother, and they bow down and they worship him and give him presents befitting a king; gold and frankincense and myrrh.
But this is the baby of a carpenter and his young wife, this baby is sleeping in a manger, surrounded by animals, this baby was visited by shepherds.
Then there are the dreams, the Magi have dreams or maybe just one of them has a dream but they decide to take another route home and forego visiting Herod again. And Joseph also has a dream warning him, so off Mary and Joseph and Jesus go to Egypt for awhile or at least until Herod dies a few years later.
We have a star that lights the way for the Magi to follow, which reminds me of the pillar of fire that guided Moses and the people out of Egypt into the promised land.
We have the Magi: non-believers, gentile, pagans, uncircumcised who come and worship this “king of the Jews” baby while the believers – the circumcised, the Jews – the leaders of their community are worried and upset by this birth of this prophesized “king of the Jews” baby.
I think God is at work in this story, paving the way for the opening verses in the Gospel of John
1 In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
2 From the very beginning the Word was with God.
3 Through him all things came into being;
and without him not one thing came into being.
4 What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
5 The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has never put it out.
What darkness you might ask: well, when Jesus was born there was Rome and Herod, the Roman appointment who was rather ruthless and in accordance with good relations with Rome taxed the population of Judea to send back to Rome and to finance his own military and building plans.
He, also, upset Pharisees and some of the priests and judges, as well as, the general population with what they considered to be a diminishment and desecration of their religious practices and temple. The judges weren’t always caring people looking out for the widows and the poor and the troubled and the children and those who have been cheated out of land and home and animals. The high priests and temple were just another avenue of taxation.
There was a lot of darkness for the people of Judea, they cried out to Yahweh for a Messiah to arise and save them.
And a baby is born, a baby who is worshipped by shepherds and gentiles. Oh and angels!
God is at work.
The King of the Jews isn’t born in a palace in Jerusalem.
The King of the Jews isn’t welcomed into the world surrounded by the leaders of society, the Sadducees and Sanhedrin are absent, the Pharisees have stayed away, Herod plots the murder of all infants under the age of two in Bethlehem and Jesus and his family have to flee to Egypt.
It is a very dark time for all the families who have male children under two years of age. We, too, live in dark times, different dark times but dark times nevertheless.
And Jesus grows up to announce to the world; to announce to us:
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
To people who live in dark times the Jews in Jesus’ time, to Christians who live in dark times – that’s us, Jesus’ confidence echoes that of the Magi, who set off to follow a star because they knew it was important, they trusted that what they were doing was important. Those Magi were wise.
Maybe they didn’t have the right words for what they were doing, maybe they didn’t have the right god in their belief system but Yahweh knew them. God guided them to Bethlehem as surely as he guided the Israelites out of Egypt. God was in their hearts and their minds as they travelled, in their hearts and minds as they dreamed and in their hearts and minds as they travelled home by another way.
The God who guided them, guides us.
The baby they worshipped, we worship.
And the light they followed, well, that light is the light of the world and whoever follows it will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
May it be so. Amen