The Visit of the Wise Men
2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
This Sunday, in the period between Christmas and Epiphany (known as Christmastide or the 12 Days of Christmas), we talked about the Wise Men whose journey is celebrated on Epiphany (the 2nd Sunday after Christmas). The story of the Wise Men is found only in Matthew 2 and we walked through the story bit by bit to answer one big question “Why were the Wise Men so late?” They didn’t arrive till Jesus was nearly 2! That’s quite a bit late to the birthday party.
It’s easy to miss a lot in this story if we don’t know the meaning of certain details. First, who were these magi or wise-men? And where in “the East” were they coming from? Matthew’s story is pretty sparse on what seems like key detail. But from the time period when Jesus was born we can assume a few things from the details we have. Another word sometimes used for our “Wise men” is astrologers. They were star gazers. And no amateurs either, they believed they could read the movement of the stars and use it to get insight about the future. When you put together astrology and a country to the East, someone in the days of Jesus or Matthew would have heard “Babylon.” Babylon was a huge empire to the East of Israel that had conquered the nation several times in the past. They were well known for their astrologers and the use of divination (reading the future) in their religion and their politics. So these wise men were probably astrologers from Babylon.
So why do they go see Herod and why is Herod “frightened” when he meets with them? Well, these astrologers were probably also political advisors (if you were king and had people around you thought could see the future wouldn’t you probably hire them too?). So they’re political advisors. Today we might call them the “Deputy Secretaries of Star-Reading.” They have real political power. They live in palaces and work with kings and princes and generals every day. So when they see this star and read from it that a new King of Israel has been born they go to the palace. They’re political men. They know where Kings should show up.
But why does Herod freak out? Well because Herod is already king! The job is not open! We are not accepting applications for “Messiah” or “King of the Jews” at this time. The Wise Men weren’t random strangers, they were powerful representatives of another government acknowledging a new king. This would be like the Ambassador from Canada to the US telling the President that he was here to officially greet his replacement.
The wise men made a big assumption about what kind of King God was sending into the world. They went looking for crowns and soldiers and thrones and brushed right past the lowly stable and the peasant village of Nazareth. They thought that God would do something that looked like them and made sense to them. And they ended up chumming around with one of the scariest most violent men of the time.
We do this all the time. We assume that God looks like us, thinks like us, works like us. God will intervene in the world in the way I would do it. God will be present in the places I am. But God picks unexpected lowly ways of breaking into the world. We have to open our eyes and break out of these assumptions. Be prepared for the God who won’t be boxed in. The god who picks stables over palaces and sends a peasant carpenter instead of a governor.
A post script for your edumahcation:
The three gifts the Wise Men bring each represent something different about Jesus’ life and ministry. The song “We Three Kings” spends one verse on each of these and explains their significance.
Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign.
Gold represents Jesus royalty and his place as King.
Frankincense to offer have I.
Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising all men raising,
Worship Him, God on high.
Frankincense or just incense is a traditional temple offering for a God, pointing to Jesus’ roles as Priest, Prophet and Son of God.
Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume
Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrow, sighing, bleeding dying,
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.
Myrrh is a kind of perfume which was used in Jesus’ time to prepare bodies for burial. It pointed forward towards the end of Jesus’ ministry with his death on the cross.