Our story begins after Jesus was born. Mary and Joseph have traveled from the town of Nazareth to be counted in a census that was mandated by King Herod, who was acting as a puppet governor for the Roman Empire. They arrived at Bethlehem of Judea just in time to deliver the baby Jesus. The text tells us that Magi have arrived in Jerusalem asking about the baby who was born a king. They have traveled a great distance from the East, most likely from the area of modern day Iran. The story tells us that they have been following a star. This star in the heavens has led them a great distance in search of whom they call “King of the Jews.”
Who were the Magi anyway? They brought their wealth from another country, and worshiped the newborn baby as “King of the Jews.” They worshiped a king who was not there own, yet they offered him their allegiance as worshipers.
When we look to our culture, we usually sing about “three wise men” and see three men bearing small treasure boxes in their hands to present to the baby Jesus in the manger. But the text tells us the kings arrive after Jesus was born and they entered a house to see the child (2.1, 11).
It seems that it was some time after Jesus was born that these men finally arrive to see the child who was still living in Bethlehem. Our culture tells us that there were three men, but church history traditions vary. Some believe there could have been two or as many as 12 in this processional of kings that traveled across the desert lands to see this newly born “King of the Jews.”
The Magi discovered a great light had come into the world – a star – that represented to them the birth of divine ruler. Matthew tells the story of Jesus birth with an eye toward the Old Testament prophetic writings. Here the birth of Jesus is told remembering the prophet Isaiah words. Third Isaiah says a light has come, nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn (60.1-6). In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus’ introduces his ministry (Mt. 4.12-17) from 1st Isaiah, the people walking in darkness have seen a great light (9.1-6).
The God of Heaven and Earth has given a sign in the heavens of a star. Together as the Jews heard this story from Matthew’s Gospel about the Magi, they would have remembered that God is the God of all the lights in the heavens (Genesis 1). This is the God of Heaven and Earth. They could not mistake this Messiah, this King as belonging to the world.
From our text we see the word that we translate “magi” is used only four times in the New Testament (Mt 2.1, Acts 8, Acts 13, Rev 20). Each use of the word represents an evil person who was shunned by Jewish society. This word is used for Simon the Sorcerer who gathered a heretical following of people after Jesus died (false prophet). And, it was also used to describe Bar-Jesus (false prophet) who was an adviser to proconsul. Bar-Jesus becomes temporarily blind because he tries to prevent the Gospel from spreading through Paul’s preaching. These are self-motivated false prophets.
If we look to the Old Testament for answers about what this word means, we see the same word used for the wise men lead by Daniel who interpreted dreams, and guided the king of Babylon. Perhaps Daniel had an impact on Babylonian religious culture of his day that connected these men to the star. There are a number of Old Testament Prophecies about the Star and the coming of a divine ruler. In fact Daniel tells of the star, the birth, and the death of the divine rule (Daniel 9.24-27).
The other texts that are well known prophecies about the star and the kings coming from other nations to bow down to the divine ruler are the texts we read today from Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72. Even the false prophet Balaam who is detested in Jewish culture was known as a false prophet, one who uses divination. Balaam speaks of the rising of a star that will be a divine ruler. Balaam, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, prophesies the “star” that would rise symbolizing the Messiah (Num. 24.17).
The Magi in our story were considered in their culture to be wise men, scientists, astronomers, and possibly Zoroastrian Priests. These men were considered men of wisdom who studied the stars. If we look to Jewish history for insights, we discover that during the days of Esther, many people in the Babylonian Empire became Jews. This helps us to understand why these men had any connection with the Jewish religious culture. Even still over the Advent Season we have been reading prophecies about Jesus in the book of Isaiah, which is all about the Jewish Babylonian captivity. So we know that the Jewish people spent time captivity in the same area where these men came from in Persia. It seems there were Persian prophesies in the day of a star that would predict a divine ruler coming in fire and light.
All this study about stars leads us to think about stars in our own lives. When we look up at the heavens we can’t see many stars until we get away from the community, and get alone in the wide-open country. I enjoy studying the stars, and catching a glimpse of a lunar eclipse or a shooting star. But there are some who gaze at the star charts for the wrong reasons – for self-promotion rather than worshiping God the Creator of Heaven and Earth. There’s a big difference between astrology – the study of the heavens – and astronomy. It needs to be noted that the biblical tradition is extremely exclusive in nature and regards bible above personal experience. Thus any source of supernatural revelation outside of seeking Almighty God is strictly forbidden (Deut. 18.9-15, Lev. 20.6). Astrology in the Judeo-Christian heritage is forbidden (Isaiah 47.13-14, Deut. 18.9-12, Jeremiah 10.2).
The Magi could see into the heavens a star being born as a light to guide their way. The Magi followed the star to guide their path to find the King of the Jews, but it is the Jewish God of Heaven and Earth who sent them dreams to protect them from the evil that lie ahead on their journey, and redirected their path. Although the Magi were seekers of the future, and able to know even more than the Jewish religious leaders about reading the signs in the skies, God proves his power is greater even than the Magi.
As we return to our story we see in verse three that King Herod the Great I (74 B.C. to 4 B.C.) has been troubled by the news of the arrival of a divine ruler. A king has been born, but there is already a king on the throne. There’s only room for one king to rule Judea. Herod had been very successful in his vast building projects. He reigned as a puppet king from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. The magi call the baby “king of the Jews” a phrase we will hear later at Jesus’ persecution, and subsequent death at the hands of Pilate.
All four Gospels use the language “king of the Jews” at the end of Jesus’ life. Herod retaliated by killing all the male children less than two years of age in Bethlehem and the surrounding territory (sounds like Moses’ situation). Herod was not concerned about the star itself or the multitudes of people who had descended upon the city for the census count. He wasn’t interested in the religious component of the story at all, only his reign. (Sounds like Josiah’s mother). Herod was known for his cruelty, and even killed his own family members who threatened his rule. We don’t remember much about Herod in history most likely because of his evil heart that killed innocent children. But it seems that Herod was well known for his love of power, and using his power to better himself.
There is now a conflict between the present ruling of the Jewish people. Jesus has come to dethrone the earthly rule. Magi from a rival empire, Parthian Empire, were known to ride the borders of the Roman Empire. The Magi would have been considered a threat to Roman Rule. Herod, King of the Jews, seeks to kill his nation’s Messiah, while Gentiles travel across the land to worship Him. Strangers to Judaism show more faith, than Abraham’s descendents.
As we follow along in our story we see that the Herod’s response is to call the religious leaders together. Although the baby divine ruler is born right under their noses in Bethlehem, the Jewish leaders have no idea that God is at work among his people. Magi from afar knew more about time of the divine rulers arrival than the Jewish chief priests and the legal experts. The religious leaders knew the prophecies but could not discern the times. They were not aware of the arrival of the star. From the text there is no indication that the Jews were attentive to the situation. Herod has a secret meeting with the magi.
The heart of our text today is the word joy. As we journey through our story we see the exchange of gifts. The magi bring their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And, in the great love exchange between weary travel and the divine ruler the expression of deep joy fills the Magi, and the Magi offer Jesus their treasures of earthly wealth.
When the Magi arrived at the place where Jesus was, and they entered the house, they had profound joy (Mt. 2.10). This word used for joy is the same word translated grace in the New Testament and loving kindness (hesed) in the Old Testament; two very special words to describe the favor of God upon a person’s life. The same word is used in Luke 2.10, “…good news of great joy that shall be for all people.” This joy that is noted in these texts are different from happiness. Even when we are not happy in the flesh, we can be filled with rejoicing in our spirits.
This very clearly shows that while we may not be happy, we can still rejoice. The “joy” that God will give us is not entirely based on happiness, but it is based in rejoicing. The Greek word “charis” describes a deep sense of inner joy. It means that the fruit of the spirit which is joy is ours in Christ Jesus. Essentially “charis” means we will be possessed by a spirit of rejoicing when we live into the fullness of the Spirit.
If we look at the whole of the Gospel of Matthew, we discover that the Gospel is written to point to the fulfillment of the divine kingship of Jesus. It has been fitting for us today to complete our Christmas sermon series with yet another passage from the prophet Isaiah as well. The passage in our call to worship prophecies that the people coming to give gifts of gold, incense, and proclaiming praises to our Lord (60.6). The texts further states that kings will come to your dawning prophesying the kings arrive at the birth of the Christ child (60.3).
Matthew’s Gospel is written so that all who are hearing it would understand the fulfillment of the Old Testament Messianic prophecies about the King of the Jews. This passage teaches us today that the Magi were looking for the “King of the Jews” and when Jesus later rides into Jerusalem on a donkey to celebrate the Passover before his death the entire community hails him “King of the Jews.” The Jewish people have found their Messiah!
As we follow the lectionary texts to Easter we will discover how this King of the Jews fulfills the law and the prophets by offering the blood sacrifice for the sins of the people. The King of the Jews cares for his people and bringing them joy. As Jesus lives into his kingly identity and role, he provides the keys to the kingdom to loose the bonds of sin and death upon all people, including magi, wise men, kings and false prophets. But we must remember that the kingdom cannot be bought or paid for with money, it is a place in the heart.