A Gift for the Magi - Matthew 2.1-12
The Word of God for today we find in chapter two of Matthew’s gospel. I suppose in one way, you haven’t said very much to say that a particular gospel story is cloaked in mystery. For you could scarcely imagine a greater mystery than God becoming man, and that mystery lies over the whole New Testament. But Jesus and his disciples at least seemed ordinary – indeed so much so that it was an obstacle to their being taken seriously. People knew them, knew where they’d come from. The older ones knew Jesus from back when he was a kid, playing hide-and-seek with their kids. There was, by contrast, nothing ordinary about the wise men and their coming to worship the one born to be King of the Jews. Matthew 2.1:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem
The mystery begins with the pronunciation. Say MAYjay and half the listeners will whisper Isn’t that MAEjay. Say it the other way, and the other half of the audience will whisper. You can’t win. Actually, the traditional Wise men might express it best of all. Such people were typically advisors to kings, versed in whatever knowledge would be deemed valuable at court. And among star-gazing peoples like the Arabs and the Persians, a wise man’s expertise would extend to astronomy (or astrology if you will, though the distinction wouldn’t have occurred to them).
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi 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 in the east and have come to worship him.”
Where’d they come from? And what was the star? And what conceivable interest would a foreign wise man have in a Jewish king? It seems that it wasn’t much Matthew’s interest to lift the shroud of mystery here. The biographical details aren’t the point of the story. But for what they’re worth, some historical details that could reasonably account for what we see in the story. The Babylonians and the Persians were star-gazing peoples. And they’d had prolonged and vital contact with the Jews. Some 600 years before, the Jews had been deported to Babylon and lived there, and many had stayed permanently. More to the point, the prophet Daniel was made chief advisor to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. He was a wise man, and he was put in charge of all the Babylonian wise men. Let’s read a couple things Daniel wrote, material to which educated Persians would have had access. Chapter 7 of Daniel:
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. . . .
27 Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.’
Interesting, at least.
As to the star, (and far from the only possibility), astronomers say that about 2 years before Jesus’ birth, Jupiter and Saturn came together in the constellation Pisces – which happens only once every 800 years. To an astronomer, then, a remarkable event, and a brilliant display to anyone looking up into the night sky. (Notice, it doesn’t say that they followed a moving star all the way from the east. The moving star comes in later.)
They saw the star in the east, and came to Jerusalem asking, Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? Reasonably, to Jerusalem as the capital city, where information would be available. And it looks as if, at first, they were just asking around, assuming that the information they sought was common knowledge (like visitors to Pasadena asking about the Rose Bowl.) But their presence in town and the asking about a new-born king becomes a rumor that runs through the city and to the royal palace.
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
There’s nothing mysterious in Herod’s being disturbed at such a rumor. For starters, he was a deeply disturbed man. He’d been a brilliant ruler, but in these his last years he was sinking into an insanity marked by paranoia. Years before he’d had his favorite wife executed on suspicion of plotting against him. And it was at about the time of our text had he added three of his sons to that list, on the same charge. So rumors of the birth of a king from the legitimate royal family of David would have been anything but welcome.
Herod was disturbed, understandably. But why all Jerusalem with him? Not, certainly, from any sympathy for Herod and his throne. Herod was an Idumaen, not a true Jew. He was put in power and maintained there by the power of Rome. And the vast majority of Jews would have hated and feared him. But you can imagine, a man who’s having his own family members executed on suspicion of disloyalty would be a dangerous person to have upset. And reading the aftermath to our story, you see that such fears were far from empty:
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
So when they heard rumors of the Messiah’s birth, God’s chosen people were disturbed. What would Herod think? What would Herod do? In theory, this was wonderful news – they would have acknowledged it as such - but it came at such an awkward time. The Messiah by all means, but not right now.
It’s interesting that Jesus’ growing up and going public didn’t change that situation much. Towards the end of Jesus’ public ministry, John looks back over it and says,
42 Many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.
They saw, and recognized the Son of God, but yet they asked, what will the Pharisees think? What will Pilate, or Herod, or Caesar think?
You’d have to grant, if the small questions are all one considers, they had some right to be disturbed. Are we safe in our beds, me and mine? Maybe not. Those whom they were fearing did indeed have the power and the will to inflict grievous harm. But Jesus was to tell people,
4 “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.
Jerusalem, however, was only worried about what Herod would think.
Do we do much better? I ask you, what does it take to spoil your day? Perhaps, a cloud a good deal less threatening than a Herod? Paul raises the question, in Romans 8, If God is for us, who can be against us? What will you put on the other side of the balance, that will outweigh the fact that you are the object of God’s unconditional love? In the passage, Paul tries out a few things: Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? Then he just sweeps them all away:
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Herod 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 Christ (in other words, 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 be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”
They’re able – apparently from memory – to give the passage from Micah. Jesus said of these people once, (John 5.39)
39 You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
It’s one thing to hold the truth - and as far as it goes it’s a wonderful thing. To have your creed straight is a wonderful thing. It’s wonderful to have at your fingertips the answers to life’s important questions. It’s a wonderful thing to know and defend and teach and translate the Word of God. But it’s one thing to have an excellent map and quite another to actually travel. The wise men had infinitely less of a map, but they actually traveled. They used the scrap they did have, and went and found the Shepherd of Israel. The Bible scholars had the complete map at their fingertips and even in their heads, and they stayed home. Jesus wrapped up his Sermon on the Mount: Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is building on the Rock.
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 make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
From the prophecy, Herod has the place. But that doesn’t give him the time, and hence how old a child he should be looking for. So he seeks to establish that from the first appearance of the star (and we gather from verse 16, he must have figured two years, maximum.). Supposing, no doubt, that there would be less suspicion of hostile intent that way, he lets the wise men do the searching. And off they went.
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
Why, do you suppose, the joy at seeing the star? And not just ordinary joy. The King James Version has rejoiced with exceeding great joy. Joy piled on top of joy. Why, at that moment especially? Well, imagine that you were invited to a party – what you took to be a big affair. You arrive, dressed to the hilt, with suitable presents in hand, and people there are going about in their grubbies, no talk of the party, no obvious preparation or any decoration. Did I get the wrong day? The wrong house? It must have been a lot like that for the wise men in Jerusalem. No talk of any new-born king, and when they bring it up, it’s treated like a dirty secret. And now they’re off on the final leg of their journey – a few miles – to find the King of the Jews, and they’re all alone. And you can imagine the feeling welling up – there’s something terribly wrong here. Then God gave them their star again. (Whatever they’d seen in the east, by the way, this star was a supernatural gift, doing what no star ever did, to move and stop and say right there.)
Why was the star given to them, at this very last moment? One: though they didn’t know it at the time, there was need for secrecy – which would have been impossible if they’d had to go asking around town about newborn babies. And secondly, it would have fortified them against being put off by the scene that awaited them in Bethlehem – which was probably a million miles from their expectations. A king? HERE?? Well, look at the star.
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 and of incense and of myrrh.
What could cause pagan, foreign, Gentile wise men to come bow before the newborn King of the Jews? Almost you could understand it as simple politics: emissaries from one royal court paying, on a state occasion, lavish oriental respects to another– low bowing, rich gifts and such, in a culture accustomed to that sort of thing. It almost works, but really it doesn’t. What political sense would there be in a first rate world power bowing low before a third rate one (and Judea at this time was scarcely even that). Gold would have made sense as a royal gift, but who’d give incense and myrrh? So it simply wasn’t human politics.
But if the newborn King really were the Son of God? Then things falls into place. The worship is fitting. If he’s the eternal King, the gold is fitting. If he’s the divine High Priest, the incense is fitting. And the myrrh? It wasn’t exactly fitting, but far more than that it was a prophecy. Nicodemus brought myrrh as an embalming spice, to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
How, even before he was born, did pagan wise men choose prophetically appropriate gifts for the Christ child? The short answer is – and indeed the only answer is – we don’t know. But there’s a most interesting sentence in one of Paul’s speeches in Acts – a speech remarkable for its being delivered to a group of people totally ignorant of God’s word. Paul says, In the past he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony. He let them go their own way, but he’s not ignoring them, and he has not been silent. The wise men are one example – how many others might there be? One thing is obvious: if we hadn’t been told about the wise men and their story, we wouldn’t have come up with it in a million years. We are told that there will be surprises in heaven. (The wise men would have been a shocker, had we not been told.) A few weeks ago we heard read Jesus’ encounter with a Roman centurion. Jesus marvels at the faith of one who – logically - should have known little and cared less. And he tells the crowd that there will be many coming from the east and the west to sit with Abraham in the kingdom of heaven.
Our story wraps up:
12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
See what happens, when you get the order right? Fear God, and you can let him contend with the Herods.
What do we take from this story? One thing, certainly, the remarkable fact that the very first ones that God drew to his Son the Savior he called not from among his chosen people the Jews, but out from among the nations. From the people he’s sometimes accused of ignoring. The first to hear were the furthest away.
Then, whom to fear. It’s actually a pretty common thing, among the religions of the world. People pay lip service to a high, majestic, sovereign God. But their everyday religious life is taken up rather with currying the favor of the little gods and demons that promise to help or threaten to hurt them in everyday matters. We can learn from the wise men to seek first the Kingdom of God, and the everyday worries will be left in the capable hands of one for whom no job or problem is too big, or too small. He can move the stars, he can help you find your keys. The one isn’t too hard for him, the other isn’t trivial.
Something we may take from this story that perhaps we shouldn’t – or at least not give it undue weight: our gifts to the Christ Child. There’s a lovely Christmas carol whose last verse asks, What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what can I give him? Give him all my heart. We have a wise man singing, Born a king, on Bethlehem’s plane, gold I bring to crown him again. What can I give him? In fact the remarkable gift – the incredible generosity, what Paul calls the unspeakable gift – went totally the other direction. God’s calling them out of their darkness into his marvelous light. And if a wise man were to sing anything in worship of the Child Christ, you could imagine it being more along the lines of the one we sing: Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.
Our closing song suggests one more gem to be picked up from this story. The wise men were guided. Jesus, Savior, pilot me. Following him can be painted as a grim duty – and let’s grant that sometimes it is. But it’s the way home. It’s the way to meaning and love and joy and peace, that we’d never ever find on our own. As a prayer, then, Jesus, Savior, pilot me.