Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 12/20/1998
Matthew 2:1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” 3 And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he began to inquire of them where the Christ should be born. 5 And they said unto him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah, for out of you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and ascertained from them the time the star had appeared. 8 And then he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make careful search for the child, and when you have found him, report to me, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 And when they had heard the king, they went their way. And lo, the star which they had seen in the east went on before them until it came and stood over where the child was. 10 And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And they came into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. And opening their treasures, they presented to him gifts of fold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way.
No figures in the Christmas story are more familiar than the Wise Men or Magi. Yet we know hardly anything about them. They were astrologers, probably from Babylon or Chaldea. They were almost certainly not kings, and there may not have been three of them (we have assumed the number from the number of gifts they brought). But we do know that they are recorded as an example to us of how Christmas should be celebrated. The text divides naturally into three heads based on the three verbs in their testimony: they saw, they came, and they worshipped.
Before we can come to God we must first believe that he is and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him. Before we can come to Christ, before we can put our faith in him, we must have heard the Good News and gotten from it some inkling of who he is. Thus the first step is to see, to understand. This vision the magi claim to have gotten from a star. There have been many theories as to what the Star of Bethlehem was. Halley’s Comet made a pass just a little too early to have been the star; there was a supernova just a little too late. One of the most fascinating theories was put forth by the great astronomer Johann Kepler, who found that in the year seven BC, just about the right time, there was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the house of Pisces. (The actual birth of Christ must have occurred in about the year six BC, because Herod died in four BC, and time has to be allowed for the sojourn in Egypt which was ended by news of his death.) What makes this conjunction fascinating is that in the mythology of the eastern astrologers of the time, it would have symbolically pointed to some kind of divine event in Judah. Unfortunately, there is not much way a conjunction, or any of the other phenomena suggested, could have pointed out the very house in which the Messiah was staying. Therefore we must conclude that, while Kepler’s conjunction might have got the magi interested in Judah, the actual star they followed must have been a supernatural phenomenon.
We must also realize that, whether he used a natural astronomical phenomenon or sent something supernatural, God must have accompanied the star with further revelation. Otherwise, why would Gentiles come to worship a Judean king, even if they had predicted his birth by studying the heavens? Where did they get this revelation? Did they have access to the Old Testament? It is possible. But there is nothing in the Old Testament predicting such a phenomenon. The closest thing to it is Numbers 24:17, where Balaam predicts that “A star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall arise from Israel.” But here the star refers to the Messiah himself, and does not clearly point to any such sign in the heavens. So we do not know how, but we know that God had spoken to these scholars through some kind of verbal special revelation as well as by their star. And they responded to this revelation in faith.
We do not know fully how, but we do know that the magi saw the star and understood something about who Jesus really was. There is no true celebration of Christmas without that! What did they see? They knew that he was born, and therefore that he was a man. They knew that he was king of the Jews, and therefore that he was the promised Old Testament Messiah, the fulfillment of prophecy to sit upon the throne of David. But they also knew that, though a man, he was someone who deserved the worship of Gentiles. And this at least implies some understanding of his deity. Their presents confirm their insight, for their appropriateness was astounding: gold for a king, incense for a deity, and myrrh, embalming spice for his death. How much they understood we cannot be sure, for not even the disciples would understand this much until after the resurrection. But even if these gifts were only providentially prescient, they point to an understanding of who this baby was that the magi were at least journeying toward. And there is no true celebration of his birth without that.
What of us? Do you see who this baby is? It is not just a beautiful story; it is an awe-inspiring reality! He is Immanuel, “God with us.” He came to die for our sins—for your sins. And therefore what can we do as we contemplate his birth but what the magi did: to fall down and worship him, to repent of our sins and receive his pardon for them, to put our trust in him, to confess with our mouth that he is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, to serve him, to give him the best we have, to worship him? But there is no reason to do any of that unless we see who he is. Do you see it?
The Wise men are called Wise Men because it was not enough for them merely to see the star; they had to follow it. It was a journey of several months through deserts and wilderness with no Holiday Inns. The rigors of the journey were nothing to be taken lightly. T. S. Eliot captures it well in his poem:
A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter. And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory, Lying down in the meting snow . . . Then the camel men grumbling and cursing And running away and wanting their liquor and women, And the night fires going out, and the lack of shelters, And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly And the villages dirty and charging high prices; A hard time we had of it. At the end we preferred to travel all night, Sleeping in snatches, With the voices ringing in our ears, saying That this was all folly.
It was not an easy journey, but they counted the coming worthwhile because of the seeing: they understood who Jesus was. In this they form an ironic contrast with the scribes, who could look up where the Messiah was to be born but who spent the night at home asleep in bed. Unfortunately, they also often form a painful contrast with us. They went on a long journey to see the Christ child. But what trivial things can keep us from crossing the street to worship him or serve him! John Donne marveled at the difficulty he had concentrating in his own prayers: “I neglect God and his angels for the noise of a fly, the rattling of a coach, or the whining of a door.” We are no better. Yet we have it so easy! The magi through Herod asked the Scribes for directions. With the Bible translations, commentaries, and concordances and other helps that godly scholars have provided, we have what Lancelot Andrewes called “a whole college of scribes” at our fingertips. The Wise Men came hundreds of miles in the most adverse conditions. Some of us cannot get out of bed to get to church around the corner in an air conditioned car.
The wisdom of the magi was not just in their learning. Any fool can acquire learning. It was in the fact that they were more than mere academics; it was in the fact that when they had learned the truth, they did something appropriate about it. Their insight begat action; their doctrine led to doing; their comprehension made them care; when they had come to a judgment, they also came on a journey. The star went from their eyes to their minds and their hearts, and from there to their hands and feet. As Andrewes so beautifully put it, “The star in their hearts cast one beam out at their mouths.” They were wise. Their seeing led to coming. Are we?
When the magi got to the house, they fell down and worshipped the child they found there. In other words, they bowed very low: pesontes prosekunesen. This is not a dignified western bow on one knee. It is an abject oriental kissing of the ground. It acknowledges the superiority of the one bowed to. (Note the irony—they were bowing to a peasant.) It also acknowledges his sovereignty, his right to command. The spirit if true worship not only offers such gestures, it takes pleasure in them; it delights to honor one who is worthy.
They also gave gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We have already noted the appropriateness of the gifts. They were also the best they had, representing the choicest products of Arabia. And that adds another level of appropriateness. For the nature of the gift reveals the attitude of the giver. What we offer to God reveals who he truly is to us. If we give him a tithe (which would be three times what is average among Evangelical Christians!) and then think of the other 90 % as our own, if we give him an hour on Sunday and then think of the rest of our time as our own, then we show that to us he is merely a pagan deity, a tribal god to be placated with such trivial offerings. This is not worship but insult and blasphemy. But if we give him ourselves, if we make of all we are and have an altar consecrated for his use, then we do indeed worship him as God. In this too the magi stand as examples to us.
It has become a bumper sticker and a poster, and with good reason: “Wise men still seek Him.” Still the truly wise are those who see, who come, and who worship. And what of us? Let us not be slack in following the example of those wise pagans who still speak to us across the centuries. Wise men still seek him.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams