Dec 2019

The Wisemen

Tim Ayers

Dec 29, 2019

This December we have been looking closely at the lives of some of main characters in the Christmas story through a series we titled 'Revealed!' We called this series 'Revealed' because as we were preparing for Christmas time, I believe back in early September, we were taken by how the stories that surround the birth of Jesus reveal so much about God's love for us and his intentions for his world. In week one of our series Dave talked to us about Zechariah and Elizabeth; Amy then spoke to us about Mary; last weekend Barry talked to us about the Shepherds; and on Christmas Eve Dave spoke about the wonder of Jesus coming to earth as a baby. If you've not heard all these messages, I highly recommend finding them on the Grace Website. They all work together to reveal so much about God's heart and what is truly important to him. And even though Christmas is now behind us, we still have one more week in our 'Revealed' series... and this final week the characters we'll be looking at are the Wise Men... or as they are more often called 'The Three Wise Men'... or as they are sometimes called, 'The 3 Kings' or you may have even heard them called, 'The 3 Magi.' We'll talk about why all the names later, but I want to get right to this story because, even though we have already heard a great deal about all that God has revealed to us in the past weeks, I believe that God still has even more to Reveal to us through this story...
br /> Matthew 2:1 Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. Matthew tells us that Jesus was born in 'Bethlehem in Judea' because there were two small, Jewish villages named Bethlehem at that time, one in Judea near Jerusalem and another up north in Galilee just down the road from Joseph and Mary's hometown of Nazareth. The prophecy about Jesus' birth had specifically said he would be born in Bethlehem in Judea and Matthew didn't want any confusion about this detail. Matthew also mentioned that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod. This would have been Herod the Great... but I want you to know that calling him 'great' then wasn't like us calling someone 'great' now. All this meant then was that he was 'the first' Herod. In fact, he wasn't 'great' like we would think of it at all: he was ruthless, cruel, jealous, arrogant, manipulative, self-absorbed and heartless; plus, and this is an important detail related to this passage, Herod had earlier gone to great lengths to get the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus to give him the title, 'The King of the Jews,' even though Herod wasn't really Jewish. Matthew wanted to remind his readers that this terrible guy was running things when Jesus was born. And then we read 'About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him."' Now, first, I want everyone to add a word in your Bibles that our house Bible doesn't include. In the Greek the little word idou is found right after 'About that time.' Idou is almost always translated 'Behold!' Idou means, 'Take note!' or in this case it should read something more like, About that time 'and you won't believe this!' And what Matthew knew people in his day wouldn't have believe at all was that 'wise men,' or what in the Greek is literally 'magi,' came from Eastern lands looking for the newborn King of the Jews. Here's why they wouldn't have believed it: calling these people 'wise men' is being kind. Magi were actually astrologers, they were soothsayers and magicians and they served in the courts of the rulers in eastern lands like Mesopotamia and Persia. They may have been wise, but they were wise in the fortune-telling arts. And Jews were extremely skeptical of magi because God had been very specific in the Old Testament that Jews weren't supposed to have anything to do with astrologers and fortune tellers. This is why Matthew says, 'Can you believe it! Magi, yes, Magi, came all the way to Jerusalem from someplace way out east looking the newborn king of the Jews... they'd seen his star 'rising' and had followed it all the way to Judea! Believe it or not!' Now we have no idea exactly what was going on with this star. People have tried to tie what the Magi saw to some natural, astronomical phenomenon that may have happened at that time... a comet or the coming together of two planets... things like that... but those explanations have all been guesses. This star is simply a mystery. We just have to take the Magi's word for it that they'd made their way to Jerusalem to worship the newborn king of the Jews by following this star. And this brings up another mystery in this story: 'Why were these Magi from someplace way east of Israel even interested in finding this newborn Jewish King?' Now, we do know that a large population of Jews were living in the city of Babylon at this time and maybe, just maybe, these magi had been studying the Old Testament prophecies with some of these Babylonian Jewish folk... but we can't be certain how they even knew about a coming King of the Jews. But what we do know is that they came to find this child because they wanted to 'worship' him. The word translated worship in the original Greek is 'proskeneo.' And it meant to show someone reverence... it meant to bow down in honor, it was even used to speak of kissing the hand of someone who deserved great respect. And it makes perfect sense that King Herod wasn't happy hearing about a 'newborn king of the Jews.' It's no wonder we read these words in verse 3. 3 King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. This is one of those, 'If Herod is deeply disturbed about something then everyone is going to be deeply disturbed, too!' moments. I'm sure everyone was wondering, 'What is Herod going to do now?' And verse 4 tells us he was plotting something. 4 He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, "Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?" 5 "In Bethlehem in Judea," they said, "for this is what the prophet wrote:6 'And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are not least among the ruling cities of Judah, for a ruler will come from you who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.'" Just an aside, these leading priests and teachers of religious law had studied the scriptures over many years trying to figure out everything they could about God's promised Messiah... and after much study and discussion they were confident that they'd determined exactly when the Messiah would come and what he'd do once he arrived... in fact, they believed that they'd figured out all of the details about the Messiah... and yet, we know now that the only thing that they got right was that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. I find it terribly ironic that the leading Jewish priests and teachers of the day helped this group of foreign, gentile, astrologers and fortune tellers find their way to Jesus. I think this calls for another, 'Behold... can you believe it!'
br /> 7 Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. 8 Then he told them, "Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!" Now, clearly, Herod was lying! He had no intention of worshiping some baby these Magi were calling 'the newborn king of the Jews.' This baby sounded like a rival to him... and history tells us he'd made an art form out of eliminating his rivals! When he was first appointed by Rome to rule over Judea, he had the two men that had ruled in Judea before him put to death and, just for good measure, he also had many of their followers and all their family members killed as well. And speaking of family, Herod had his brother-in-law, his mother-in-law, his 3 oldest sons and even his favorite wife put to death because he suspected that they might be plotting against him... Herod certainly wasn't going to stand by and let some 'baby' become known as 'The King of the Jews.' 9 After this interview the wise men went their way and (By the way, you can add another 'behold' here, too!) the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. Now, again, no one knows exactly what happened with the star here. This is a real mystery, but somehow the Magi knew exactly that the star was telling them, 'You'll find the child here!' Verse 10 goes on to tell us, 'When they saw the star, they were filled with joy!' Now, I want to stop here for a second. Our translation says, 'When they saw the star they were filled with joy.' That's okay, but it's a bit of an understatement. The literal Greek says this, 'They rejoiced with a joy exceedingly,' but the feel of this Greek is more like: 'they were joyously joyous in as joyous a manner as it is possible to be joyous.' This is joy beyond imagination! 11 They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Notice that Jesus is called a 'child' here; in chapter one he was called a baby. He was probably 18 to 20 months old by now. People have gone to great lengths to tell us the meaning behind these gifts: gold means this... frankincense means this... myrrh means this. Yet, to be honest, this is all speculation. All we can be certain of is that the Magi felt that their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, were valuable enough to be given to a King. We can also be certain that these men paid attention to dreams because verse twelve tells us this. 12 When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.
br /> The magi's story ends here, but the repercussions of their visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem didn't end when they slipped past Herod and went home by another route. If you read on in the story you will find that God also told Joseph, Jesus' father, in a dream as well, to get up immediately, right then in the middle of the night, leave Bethlehem with Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt because Herod was intent on finding little Jesus and killing him. Joseph did just this... and may I add, they certainly left with the gifts that the Magi had given Jesus... and it is entirely possible that these gifts helped fund their extended stay in Egypt. Matthew then tells us that Herod, once he realized that the Magi had outwitted him, responded in characteristic Herod-the-Great-form by ordering that every boy under the age of 2 in Bethlehem be put to death. This was typical of this evil man. Most scholars figure that the number of boys under the age of 2 in Bethlehem at this time would have been less than 20 baby boys... possibly only 10 or 11 boys... but, even one child's death due to Herod's jealously and rage was one too many. And while this story ends with Jesus' family safely escaping to Egypt and eventually even safely returning to Galilee, these verses also end with great sadness... a sadness I can't even imagine, a sadness that is often called 'The slaughter of innocents.' This story that began with the wonder of the wise men following a star in their search for Jesus ends with the inconsolable despair of the entire community of Bethlehem. And how like our world this is... a world filled with great wonder and yet it is broken in ways that can't help but break our hearts.
br /> Now, people have added a lot of additional details to this story over the centuries, details that we don't find in The Bible. One addition is that the magi are usually pictured as having arrived in Bethlehem on the night of Jesus' birth. This may have happened, but it's highly unlikely. Also, the number of magi is pretty much locked in at 3 since that was the number of the gifts that were given to Jesus. But nothing in what Matthew tells us says there were only 3 magi. Another addition is that someone in the 6th century gave names to the 3 wise men: these names are Gasper, Bathasar and Melchior. It's a nice touch, but very unlikely. Plus, the entire notion of these men being astrologists and fortunetellers has been pretty much washed out of the story over time; rather than these men being referred to as pagan, gentile magicians they are now called kings... often holy kings, no less. I could go on and on with these kinds of additions and in all honesty, I think people have added these details because there just aren't many details in the 12 verses that Matthew gives us, and people want details... so some have been added to fill in the gaps in Matthew's story. But what details we do have in this short passage tell me a couple of things that have been resonating in my heart and mind as I've been preparing to talk about this passage.
br /> First, I find it interesting that this story sits right between Matthew's story of Jesus' birth and his telling us about the Jesus' vibrant ministry as an adult. Chapter 1 of the Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus as a baby and Chapter 3 begins with Jesus, now a 30 year-old-man, being baptized at the beginning of his going into the world to spread the good news! But in the small space that makes up chapter 2, the space between Jesus' birth and the beginning of his ministry, we get this story about a group of men who knew the right thing to do, even before Jesus had said more than a few words, let alone preached a sermon... men who knew what to do while Jesus was still a child taking baby steps... these men knew that the right thing to do was bow down before Jesus and show him reverence and honor and worship. These magi, these gentile astrologers, some of the last people on earth that Jewish religious leaders would have ever allowed near their Messiah, these Magi, can you believe it, Magi, knew what to do when they met Jesus... and they were some of the first people to do what someday all of humanity will do: They bowed before Jesus and worshiped him as The King. In fact, the only thing we really know about these magi... their legacy if you will... is that they did everything that they could to worship Jesus. And what has been swirling in my heart as I have been thinking about these magi is that this is what I want to be known for as well. I long for my every word, my every thought and my every deed to be focused on worshiping Jesus as The King. I know I know I have a long way to go to reach this place in life, but this story tells me any journey focused on worshiping Jesus is worth the effort. And my goodness, is this story one more example of the upside-down nature of God's kingdom or what? This story tells us that God gladly accepts worship from people who are seeking him no matter who they may be... even if they are pagan fortunetellers like the Magi. This story tells us that even those of us who may be seeped in things that religious people would believe exempts people from having any access to God are welcome in Jesus' new kingdom. The Magi prove, just as all the other characters in our Revealed series have shown us, that God is not a God of favorites, that God sees our hearts... and not only does he see our hearts, but that he also longs to fill our hearts with a 'joyous joy that is as joyous as it is possible to be joyous!' So, do not be discouraged... God is calling you, no matter what your past may be... no matter what others may have said about you or what shame you may be carrying... no matter how distant you may feel from him right now... God is calling you to come to Jesus, accept his love for you, find the reason he put you on this earth... and worship him.
br /> I am so thankful that we have this story... I am so thankful that God used these unexpected men, and all of the other people we have met over the last few weeks in our Revealed series, to show us this truth: all are welcome in God's new Kingdom... all are welcome to join with many other unexpected people just like you and like me... all are welcome to follow Jesus... all are welcome to worship Jesus, and all are welcomed to join Jesus in God's ultimate mission: to bring healing, comfort and joy to our needy, broken world.