The Glorious Hope of Christmas | Matthew 2:1-12
Now, here’s a spoil alert! Most Christians should know that the Magi, who more often than not portray in nativity scenes around the world for generations, did not visit the baby Jesus. They actually visited Jesus who was a 2-years-old child. The Magi were not kings as we sing in the well-known carol and what the King James Version calls them. And we don’t even know how many there were? Its been assumed three because of the three gifts. Sorry if I have destroyed all your preconceived ideas. But please, you don’t need to go home and remove those three Magi from your nativity sets.
The reason why I want to look at them today is that because they are often associated with the Christmas story, and as such I often find myself challenged by what these guys did and the context that surrounded them.
The phenomenon of all times, never to repeat itself in history was the account in the Bible of a significant birth which is closely marked by a star in the east. To see it once was to view a spectacle that nature would never repeat again for the naked eye to see. It must have been incredible to say the least, to see something that magnificent. To consider the events from a spiritual and Christian perspective is nothing short of stunning.
It is why we need to embrace with new eyes and heart the story of the Magi. To understand what this event meant for them ought to challenge our faith.
Here are three challenges that the Magi ought to present us.
First, does our lifestyle actually clash with our culture? This seems rather strange to say when talking about the Magi. Let me explain. We are told in verse 1, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem” (Matthew 2:1 NIV). What happened here is in many respects a culture clash.
Magi were the professors, philosophers, and priests of their day, originating from the country we now call Iraq. These professionals were highly educated scholars who were trained in medicine, history, religion, prophecy and astronomy. Our modern word “magistrate” is a direct descendant of the word magi. Since these men thought deeply about life, it certainly makes sense that they have been called “Wise Men.”
They were also trained in what we would call astrology. Back then, astrology was connected with people’s search for God. The ancients studied the skies in order to find answers to the great questions of life - questions like: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?
Matthew simply tells us that they arrived in Jerusalem, the home of the Jews. The Magi entered a world foreign to them. Their arrival and search reached all the way to the top – King Herod who wasn’t pleased at all about this news. Matthew says in verse three, “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3 NIV). Their arrival, news and search was perceived as a threat to Herod’s throne. It was a threat that had to be terminated. The Magi were warned in a dream not to tell Herod because of his execution plot for Jesus so they travelled home another way.
The Magi left their families and culture to find the truth of God in the person of Jesus Christ. They actually risked imprisonment, torture or possibly death by rejecting King Herod’s instructions of reporting where exactly this child was. There was a lot at stake – religious culture clashed, social structures clashed, and ruling authorities clashed.
Seeking Christ will clash with the world-view cultures that our society exposes us too. For generations Christians in various parts of the world have experience hardship because their faith is counter-culture to that of their governments. In Australia, I think this year has seen the clashes between the Christian and secular cultures in regard to same sex marriage and the proposed religious freedom discussion. Even just last week, two Green Senators McKim and Peter Whish-Wilson took the opportunity to put down Christians by posting an image of a banner which reads: “merry non-denominational seasonal festivity”. We are going to face more challenges in the future such as funding of private schools such as Christian Schools, religious education in State Schools, prayers in parliament, and the list continues. The challenge for the church is how do we remain a witness without surrendering our core beliefs and practices? Like the Magi, we have to be a part of our society that is counter-culture of the Jesus’ way. And for any of us who are seeking, like the Magi, you to will have to journey from whatever your cultural understanding of God, to find and understand Jesus and His teachings. You will not understand Jesus and His Ways unless you surrender your preconceived ideas.
This leads us to the next challenge that this story presents. It is the tension between Faith and the Supernatural. Do you reason your belief without faith? Matthew wrote in verse 2 that the Magi asked Herod, “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” (Matt 2:2).
The mysterious star captured the hearts of the Magi. They knew something momentous had just taken place. God must had revealed to them Christ’s identity as the king of the Jews. It was this mysterious star and who it was pointed to that led them to Jerusalem. This was a big step of faith. This wasn’t just a day visit. Coming from the East, some 1500 kilomtres away – would had taken several months. They would had packed their caravans and camels and made the huge trek across mainly desert. They left behind their employment and even family – all to follow a star that they were told by maybe some angel or dream that the king of the Jews – a race that were different to them – has come.
Over the years, scholars have tried to rationalize this star. One astronomer from Rutgers University in New Jersey argues that it was an alignment of stars and planets that ancient astrologers would have recognized as significant. Jupiter was considered the planet of kings, and a lunar eclipse of Jupiter in the constellation was an ancient symbol of Judea, would have excited expectations of a divine birth in Jerusalem. According to calculations, this would have appeared in the year of Christ’s birth. In this same article, a British astrophysicist argues that the Bethlehem star was indeed a real star that can still be seen by telescope today. Back when Jesus was born, it was a bright nova. In fact, ancient Chinese astronomers report that an unusually bright star appeared in the exact year that Jesus was born. Like the astronomer from Rutgers, this guy argues that ancient astrologers would have found the nova significant because of where and when it appeared during a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces.
These people could be right, but somehow, I agree with the carol that maybe it was simply a “star of wonder” – a supernatural star? I mean, we are told that when the star reappeared it stopped over the house (v9). What star does that?
Whatever it was, the Magi were amazed, excited, even questioned what this all meant. They knew something different and unexplainable was in the air and so they decided that this mysterious would give way to faith and off they went on that long journey.
While I certainty agree with the Apostle Peter to be ready to give a reason for why we believe (1Peter 3:15), the Magi story challenges me that there is a time to put aside archeological search and apologetic reasoning for all the answers and simply decide that not everything can be explained scientifically or logically. We must not become so engrossed with proving God that we miss the place of faith.
As the writer of Hebrews in the Bible reminds us in chapter 11 verse 6, “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6 NIV).
Faith recognizes a place for mysterious, unexplainable events that are beyond human understanding – some things don’t make sense and we cannot explain everything logically. Faith recognizes this and simply accepts that some things are the way they are and happen as they do because God knows more than we do and we simply have to trust that He especially knows what’s going on and what he’s doing when we can’t figure it out.
And the next challenge that the Magi presents us is their act of homage. Homage is a word we don’t hear much these days but it sums up what these Magi were doing. Homage is more than respect and even more than honour. It all these and more. Homage comes from the middle ages and it was a ceremony in which a feudal tenant pledged reverence and submission to his feudal lord, receiving in exchange the symbolic title to his new position (investiture).
The Magi, by what they gave as gift to the Christ Child, was showing an act of homage in which they were pledging reverence and submission to their Lord, the Christ Child. Matthew says that, “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him…” (Matthew 2:11 NIV). And then as an act of worship we are told that “they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11 NIV).
Traditionally we have been taught that the gifts are symbolic of who this Christ Child is and will do. ⦁ Gold is one of the rarest and most expensive metals. It represented the wealth and power of a king. ⦁ Frankincense was used in the temple worship of the Lord. It represents the child’s deity – that He is truly God born in a human body. ⦁ And myrrh - a kind of perfume made from the leaves of a rose. It was used in beauty treatments, but when mixed with vinegar it became like a painkiller. After a person died, myrrh was used to anoint the body and prepare it for burial. John 19:39 tells us that after Jesus died, his body was wrapped in linen along with 35 kilograms of myrrh and other spices. The gift of myrrh then, pictures his suffering and death. ⦁ Gold pointed to his majesty… for He is king. ⦁ Frankincense pointed to his deity… for He is God. ⦁ Myrrh pointed to his humanity… for He was destined to suffer and die.
Did the Magi understand all this? Maybe not. But God arranged it so that their gifts to the Christ Child King would point us to who Jesus really is and why He came.
After making the homage to the Child, verse 12 says, “And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route” (Matthew 2:12 NIV).
I’m challenged by what the attitude of the Magi and by what they gave. They didn’t just give Jesus their respect. They humbly submitted to their Lord because this child was the King of the Jews. Not only did they cross cultures and show faith by searching for Jesus, but when they found Him they worshipped Him in humble submission. What a challenge
To go seeking Christ is to leave behind whatever is necessary in that search. It is not an act of respect but homage – it is not recognizing Jesus as some significant figure in history but to offer at his feet whatever we have to give because we know He is the Messiah of God. As we journey toward God… 1) we will not fit well with the world around us. It will feel less comfortable and the culture that we live and work in doesn’t understand nor accepted the culture of God’s kingdom. 2) There is reason to appreciate digging into the mystery of the supernatural in an effort to understand life better. Yet, there is a point where the digging must give way to faith, a time to simply accept things on the basis of faith and for no other good reason. 3) God is not calling us to be respectful. He is calling us to obedience and surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ which is a call to offer up everything we have.
And so, the story of the Magi is a lot more than some well-dressed guys presenting their gifts to a baby in our nativities. Here are some guys who were captivated by such a star and its significance, that they were prepared to cross from their culture into another (to their own risk) to find the Truth, who took the journey of faith, and who humbly submitted to the Lordship of Jesus. Am I like this? Are you like this?
This Christmas, we ought to be challenge to live a life as a follower of Jesus that at times contradicts what our culture wants to believe and do. This means faith and obedience to the Lordship of Jesus.
Jesus said “whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39 NIV). The Christmas story of Jesus coming into the world as God’s Son is good news. It is a message of love, hope and peace for all those who obediently step up and out in faith.