Follow that star (better still, the Bible) - Matthew 2:1-12
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
You can imagine the scene. The teacher was casting for the school nativity play and Michael desperately wanted to play one of the central figures, maybe Joseph or Gabriel. But he didn’t get on with his teacher too well and so she gave him, what she thought would be a ‘safe’ part- the role of the innkeeper. ‘I’ll learn her’ Michael muttered to himself. After many hitchless rehearsals, the big night came. The hall was packed with parents, teachers and governors. Along came the Holy family. ‘Is there any room in the inn?’ asked the despondent Joseph. Michael gave his usual big grin and throwing open the doors exclaimed ‘Sure, there’s plenty of room- come on in’!
That is a classic way to ruin the Christmas story. Well, I guess I am going to do something similar this evening as we turn to this episode of the appearance of the Magi. This is one of those stories that in the popular mind at least has taken on a life of its own. Perhaps through carols such as ‘We Three Kings of orient are’, or the cosy pictures on front of traditional Christmas cards with the shepherds and Magi huddled together around the manger in the stable we have our set images of what this passage involves. But most of them would be wrong.
There is no mention of there being three travellers. The plural is used so there is more than one, but whether it was three or thirteen, we just don’t know. The number three is inferred from the three gifts brought. Neither were they kings, they were ‘magi’ from which we get our word magicians- that is they were wise men/astronomers/astrologers. But because Christians tend to be rather uncomfortable about any occult associations we prefer to call them kings. It is also very unlikely that Jesus was in a manger at this point. The fact that Herod ordered all the children under three to be killed off rather than all new born baby boys suggests that this incident is perhaps a couple of years after the visit of the shepherds. There is no indication either that the Magi understood fully the identity of Jesus as divine. That they are said to have worshipped him, may mean no more than they paid him homage as a hereditary King, to bow down before him is the appropriate posture to adopt before royalty.
If that is what this episode isn’t- what is it about?
We have already seen that Matthew is at pains to show that Jesus is the rightful ruler of God’s people, the true heir to David’s throne. All that is happening is in line with Old Testament prophesies and promises and this is no exception, as we shall see.
First of all we have the great reversal.
To understand how this fulfils OT scripture we need to have some handle on the identity of these travellers. Well, we are given some clues.
We are told they came from ‘the East’, of course it depends on your standpoint as to what constitutes the ‘east’. Most people living in Rome in the early centuries of the church would naturally have thought of the ‘east’ as being Persia. In fact, the word ‘magi’ in Greek literature referred to people who came from Babylonia. For those living in Jerusalem the east would have been east of the Jordan River, the Jordanian deserts which connected with the deserts of Arabia.
We are told that the travellers arrived with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This suggests they were rich- possessing gold and what is more gold was mined in Arabia. More to the point is that frankincense and myrrh were harvested from trees that only grew in southern Arabia. Ok so we are focusing in on Arabia as the origin of these men.
One little piece of extra biblical information which sheds light on the identity of the travellers comes from the British scholar, E. F. Bishop who in the 1920’s visited a Bedouin tribe in Jordan. The Muslim tribe bore the Arabic name al- Kokabani. The word kokab means ‘planet’ and al- Kokabani means “Those who study/follow the planets”. Bishop asked the elders of the tribe why they called themselves by such a name. And the reply they gave was most interesting. They said it was because their ancestors followed the planets and travelled west to Palestine to show honour to the great prophet Jesus when he was born.
So what is the significance of all of that? Well it is this, in the arrival of these travellers from Babylon/Arabia, to pay homage to Israel’s king, involving a journey of 1400 miles there and back, we see God, in Jesus reversing the fortunes of Israel of the preceding centuries. Back in the days of Isaiah and Micah (from which the quote of v6 comes) the northern part of the Kingdom was devastated by invading armies from Assyria in 722 BC, pretty well travelling the same route as these wise men. In that invasion God was bringing about judgement on his people for their sin and idolatry. They were taken off into Exile, never to be seen again. The southern kingdom of Judah was spared- for the time being. Their turn was to come in 598 and 587 BC as they were crushed by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. That was a key turning point in the history of God’s people, which as we saw a few weeks ago, Matthew draws attention to it in Jesus’ genealogy. In other words, people from the east spelt nothing but trouble for God’s people. They destroyed David’s kingdom, pretty well made his lineage disappear to the point of obscurity. The Jews were dominated and subjugated. What wealth and treasure they had flowed out of the country, taken by these eastern raiders.
now in the person of the magi all of that is reversed in line with God’s
promises. And so we have this prophecy from Isaiah which was made famous by
Handle’s Messiah “Arise, shine, for your light has
come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon
you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is
over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and
his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings
to the brightness of your dawn” “Lift up your eyes and look about
you: All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the hip. Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy, the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.” (Is 60)
Midian and Ephah are the tribal lands of northern Arabia and Sheba the land of southern Arabia- today’s Yemen. So with the coming of God’s Messiah a new age has dawned, whatever exile there was has now ended and the great reversal has begun. Instead of those in the east coming for war they come for worship. Instead of taking riches, they offer riches. This is a picture in time of what will happen at the end of time when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. It is nothing less than an anticipation of the consummation of God’s kingdom.
But will you notice, how so often happens with OT prophecy, while the sense remains the same, the referent, what it is referring to, changes. In Isaiah 60 it is Jerusalem, Mount Zion, God’s city which is to be honoured. With the coming of Jesus it is God’s Son who is to be honoured. It is around the child that there was a great light and the glory of the Lord appeared (Luke 2) rather than Jerusalem. It is to the holy child that gifts of frankincense and myrrh are offered in tribute, not Zion. After all, it is this child who is God’s temple, God’s ruler, God’s anointed. What was once embodied in a place- the presence of God – is now enveloped in a person- God’s Son- Emmanuel- and these Gentile, star gazers are privileged to see this new and final chapter in God’s dealings with his people and his world. And note they were ‘overjoyed’ ‘bowed down and worshipped.’ The morning star has appeared and the great reversal has begun.
But this was not the only reaction that day; there was also the great rumpus- v3 ‘When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.’ The king-what’s his problem?
It is this: Herod was not a Jew and he was not born a king, he had no ancestral right to David’s throne: his father was an Idumean (in Old Testament terms an Edomite) who had accepted the religion of the Jews and his mother was an Arabian. The Jews never accepted him as one of their own but the Romans made him king of Judea in 40 BC. There were many sides to this man. He has been described as ‘racially Arab, religiously Jewish, culturally Greek and politically Roman’ [Kenneth E. Bailey]. He was wealthy, politically gifted, very loyal to Rome, an excellent administrator, and a brilliant architect- he built the great temple of which the wailing is the only remains. Yes, but he was a butcher, as we shall see in a few weeks’ time.
Herod the Great was always obsessed with the defence of his throne. His long reign was stained with blood from its start and in the last years he suffered from an illness which increased his paranoia, even when he was on his death bed he had one of his sons killed. He simply murdered anyone he thought might be a rival for the throne. And so, paranoid, bloodletting Herod was thrown into a hissy fit at the news that a possible rival had come, the man who brooks no rivals. That is why he was disturbed. But we are told that the whole of Jerusalem was disturbed with him. Why should it be a problem for them? Well, because it was a problem for Herod, after all, if his past behaviour was anything to go by who knew what this unhinged monarch might do? And as the story unfolds we see they had every good reason to be disturbed because their worst nightmare actually came true with the slaughter of all the little baby boys in and around Bethlehem, one of the coldest, darkest events recorded in the New Testament.
Now Herod’s paranoid, scheming mind goes into overdrive. Having no ‘sat nav’ he calls in the religious elite- the Sanhedrin- to get a location on the supposed threat to his throne. Interestingly he knows enough about the Jews to refer to the Messiah- and they direct him to the Scriptures, confident of their trustworthiness-“‘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.” (Micah 5:2). And feigning interest he secretly calls for the Magi first to get the timing of the appearance of the astral phenomenon which led them West, (so as we shall see later, he can work out how old the child was to implement plan B – a massacre- in case plan A failed), and then to use them as his dupes to report back the exact location of the child so he could kill the boy as he had killed some of his own sons- that is plan A. No doubt congratulating himself on his fool proof scheme in simply having to play a waiting game until the boy King fell into his clutches- after all how could such eminent visitors defy this King? his scheme is left in tatters by the miraculous intervention of God warning the Magi in a dream to return home by a different route and so robbing Herod of his much needed information.
Now let’s just pause there for a moment and allow the contrasting responses to Jesus to stand out. As we have seen there are the wise men who travel unspeakable distances to get a glimpse of the new King and show true homage. Like all wise men they sought Jesus and their search did no go unrewarded they experienced what all try seekers of Jesus who become finders of Jesus experience- joy! Over and against them stands Herod, full of malice and fear. At one level it is so pathetic, afraid of a little baby! But that is what all megalomania results in –craven fear due to an oversized but fragile ego.
Then there is the Jewish clergy. They know their Bible, they can quote chapter and verse at the drop of a hat, and they have no problem giving a straight theological answer to a straight theological question if needs be. But they did absolutely nothing with their knowledge. What may have begun as apathy and indifference at the beginning of the Gospel gradually hardens into outright hatred and murder by the end. Herod may have failed in his quest but these men and their successors were to make up for it on that fateful day when the nails were driven in to his hands and feet with a vengeance.
And little has changed. There are those who for all their bombast and alleged atheism seem to protest too much and you do have to wonder what is it that they fear about Jesus? Our new atheist friends dismiss belief in God as being on the same level as the tooth fairy, but I don’t see that much froth being worked up against tooth fairy belief because it isn’t a threat. Christ isn’t a threat either except to our own self-proclaimed autonomy that we will live our own lives without God thank you very much. The reaction to Jesus is sometimes like that of Susan when she found herself in Narnia and first heard of the great Aslan. “Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"..."Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.” Well, for those who want to go it alone, Jesus isn’t safe-but he is good because he is the King.
But then you have the clergy who may use the Bible but not follow it. They like to ingratiate themselves with those in power- not just politicians-but any ruling elite-the liberal intelligentsia of the media, the chattering classes who would have us dispense with God’s moral law in favour of moral anarchy. They are those who would be willing to surrender Jesus rather than surrender to Jesus. But they have their positions and their prestige and honorific titles but unlike the magi they don’t’ have the true King.
But the ultimate contrast comes in our final point- the great ruler. There it is in Micah’s prophecy, ‘“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; or out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ The priests were meant to be the shepherds of Israel, but as we have seen they seem to be more concerned with securing political favour by toadying than serving the people with God’s word. Herod’s kingship was characterised by cruelty and fear from his palace in Jerusalem, not so this babe King in his humble lodgings in Bethlehem. No one has perhaps brought together the majesty and meekness of Jesus, the shepherd King than Jonathan Edwards. Just listen to these words and tell me if this is the Jesus you know and worship: ‘In Jesus Christ we meet infinite highness and infinite condescension. Christ, as he is God is infinitely great and high above all. He is higher than the kings of the earth; for he is King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. He is higher than the heavens and higher than the highest angel of heaven………….and yet he is one of infinite condescension (that is lowering himself). None are so low or inferior, but Christ’s condescension is sufficient to take gracious notice of them. He condescends not only to the angels, humbling himself to behold things done in heaven, but he also condescends to such poor creatures of men; and that not only to take notice of princes and great men [like the magi], but those that are of meanest rank and degree, ‘the poor of the world’…. He that is high condescends to take gracious notice of little children, yes, which is much more, his condescension is sufficient to take a gracious notice of the most unworthy, sinful creatures, those that have no good deservings, and those that have infinite ill deservings’
Let me tell you, you will never find a king like this in the long annuls of the history of mankind-never. The wise men, however inadequate their knowledge set, before us the right example- you leave whatever is necessary and make whatever journey is required to get to Jesus. And when you do you too will be overjoyed as you bow before him in worship. Let’s pray.
 Kenneth E Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, pp 52-53
 Jonathan Edwards On Beauty- ed Strachan and Sweeney pp 84-86
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