Last week, I was able to go to church with my brother and his family. I was uncomfortable because their worship was nothing like ours. I like knowing the order in which we do things and having a children’s moment and lots of prayer and communion. The preacher was much different than me too. He wore jeans and tennis shoes. And, he preached for over 45 minutes. I thought about preparing a 45 minute sermon this morning… but I thought it wise not to. I’ll get to my point in about 15 minutes.
The story of the magi is one that seems quite familiar to us. We read it every year on the Sunday closest to January 6th. January 6th is called Epiphany which means revelation of God and it is the twelfth day of Christmas. That is the end of the Christmas season and time to take down the decorations.
We heard the story of the magi in the children’s Christmas program two weeks ago. We find ourselves with an array of kings— King Herod, the prophecy of the coming heir to King David’s throne, the magi – and a newborn child.
The magi have traditionally been portrayed as three; however, there may have been more as the readers in our Christmas program shared. They weren’t necessarily kings, but visited kings. There is evidence that the magi would visit kings and bring them gifts. Our pageants and even the Nativity scenes portray three men and three camels arriving in Jerusalem then Bethlehem. It is more likely that it was a caravan. Think of it not just as a few men, but all the provisions for the men to make a long journey. The caravan would have included the magi, their camels, servants, and supplies for the trip.
The magi hadn’t just taken a long ride through the desert. They had been traveling for weeks, if not months to get to Jerusalem. The Bible doesn’t tell us when the magi first saw the star and the time it took to travel to Jerusalem. Many scholars believe the magi were from Babylon. The distance from Babylon to Jerusalem was approximately 800 miles. They had been on the road a long time and had the necessities to be on the road for a long journey home.
If you think about it, and read the Gospel of Matthew carefully, the star appeared when Jesus was born. The magi had to pack up and travel 800 miles before getting to Jerusalem then make the trek to Bethlehem. The magi didn’t arrive in Bethlehem and go to the manger with the shepherds as many of our pageants and stories portray. The magi arrived months, quite possibly as much as a year after Jesus’ birth.
The story of the magi in the lectionary isn’t told with the birth narrative. It wasn’t meant to be part of the story of the birth of Jesus. That’s why it comes 2 weeks after Christmas. It had been awhile after all the miraculous joy of Jesus’ birth had worn off and Mary and Joseph were exhausted parents running after a toddler. We remember the magi on Epiphany after all the other miraculous stuff because their story reveals to us, God grants us the eyes to see, the miracle as they saw it.
It’s a second miracle. Led by the star to the place where Christ lived, the magi were the first witnesses to both the threat of the new king and the promise of the Christ child. The magi are the first Gentiles to recognize the coming of the Messiah. The revelation of the Messiah to the Gentile magi is a foretelling of the width and breadth of the coming kingdom Christ would one day proclaim.
What was the magi’s response to this revelation of the newborn king?
It was a raw, unrestrained response. They worshipped Him. The translations we typically read try to subdue the description of their response, saying simply they were “filled with joy,” but that is an understatement. Some Biblical translations describe their response differently than the translation we read today. They say, “When they saw that the star had stopped, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Something amazing happened to the magi when they found the child. They had a moment of revelation and they could not contain their joy. Ronald Goetz writes, “They had lost the composure and reserve of scholars and sages, giving way to an ecstasy of [stark] adoration.”
The alternative response, of course, is to join King Herod in not seeing God’s gift, instead giving way to just plain fear. The Bible says, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3). Herod chose to violently protect his place to preserve his power.
Herod’s first act upon hearing the news of the newborn king of the Jews from the magi was to call together the Sanhedrin to ask them about the foretold coming of the messiah. This is an odd occurrence because the Sanhedrin would not have been at the king’s beck and call. Still, they tell him the prophecy of Micah. When he hears the prophecy that “one who governs” will come from Bethlehem, his deadly claim to power begins to unfold. A new king of the Jews would not only threaten his own position and that of his heirs; the very rumors may cause Rome to question his ability to rule.
Herod saw only one way to respond to the newborn child, he kills all the boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2 years old. Matthew 2: 16 says: “When Herod knew the magi had fooled him (that is going home by a different route), he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the male children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi.”
The length of time it took for the magi to reach Jerusalem, move onto Bethlehem, and Herod to come to the realization that he had been duped was long enough that King Herod decided to kill all the boys under the age of 2 years old. That part of the story comes up in the lectionary once every three years and most preachers don’t like to talk about it. Yet, that is the response King Herod had to the new king of the Jews.
The magi were scientists and astrologers who practiced other religions and God used their faith and knowledge to lead them by a star in the East to the Christ. God used these magi to tell King Herod and the chief priests and scribes of the Jewish people that their Messiah had been born. There is a stark difference between how the magi and King Herod responded to the leading of the star. Both wanted to be led to the child, but for very different reasons. The magi wanted to pay Him homage. King Herod wanted to neutralize His threat.
The difference in the responses of the magi and King Herod is humility. In order to be led by the star to the newborn king so we can honor and glorify Him, we must humble ourselves to God. In God’s leading of our lives to come before the newborn king and worship Him, our lives will exhibit humility. Some signs that we have humbled ourselves are:
1) We are devoted to Jesus,
2) We look at the world in light of Scripture,
3) We worship with a spirit of repentance,
4) We are aware of how God desires to use us,
5) We are merciful and generous, and
6) We are thankful.
May we follow the star to Christ all the days of our lives that we may forever be blessed by revelations of God’s love and grace.