The Magi – hope for the world

Sunday, 4th January 2009 @ St Barnabas

Readings – Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6

Well we are into the new year again aren’t we.  2009, it doesn’t seem long ago it was the millennium does it.  Our theme today is hope for the world.  What do you hope for in 2009?  What do you hope for your own life?  What do you hope for us as a Church here at St Barnabas? What do you hope for the world?

When we look at the world today and hear about famine, poverty and disease not only in places where it is common like Africa but here in the UK with people living in poverty with unemployment growing, we have people dying of cancer, heart disease etc. We live in a world of terrorism threats, our soldiers dying in Afghanistan, in the last week, the conflict in Israel and Palestine which never seems to go away. So much conflict in the world.  What hope is there for the world in this new year?

As we look at our Gospel reading, we see conflict again in the reign of King Herod.  The story of the Magi or as they are frequently called, three kings or wise men is a familiar story so let’s look at it in some detail.  The birth of Jesus is not told at all in Mark and John’s gospels. Luke tells of the birth in a stable with the shepherds.  The detail of the birth of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel is sparse.  At the end of Ch 1, Matthew just says about Joseph not having any union with Mary until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. Then in our reading today Ch 2.  “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea during the time of King Herod”  ….   No stable, no shepherds, just Bethlehem in Herod’s day. Jesus, Emmanuel was born in the little town of Bethlehem. His coming always divides people. Here was the start of conflict. Here at the very start of life, we see two camps forming: one full of praise and welcome; the other full of hatred and opposition. The Magi and Herod stand out in stark contrast, a contrast that will deepen as the story of Jesus’ life unfolds towards the cross.

Let’s look at this King Herod. He was a man who was preoccupied with power, possessions and jealousy.  He had always been suspicious, and the older he became the more suspicious he grew, until, in his old age, he was, as someone said, “a murderous old man.” If he suspected anyone as a rival to his power, that person was promptly eliminated. He murdered one of his wives Mariamne and her mother Alexandra and three of his sons all for jealousy for different reasons.  Augustus, the Roman Emperor, had said bitterly, that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.

So “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked. Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We have seen a star in the east and have come to worship him. When King Herod heard this he was disturbed and all Jerusalem with him”. Who were these Magi?

In an article a few years ago,  British psychologist David Lewis reports that shopping is hazardous to men’s health. He tested volunteers (22-79 years old) by sending them out Christmas shopping. He recorded blood pressure rates that “you’d expect to see in a fighter pilot going into combat!” According to this same test, only one in four women showed any significant signs of stress from shopping – and why would they I ask? Just one of many gender differences in the world today.

The question has been posed: “What would have happened if there had been Three Wise Women instead of Three Wise Men?” The answer: They would have asked directions immediately upon commencing their trip, which would have allowed them to arrive on time; they would have helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole and brought cute little outfits that baby Jesus could have worn on his trip home.

As it happened, they were wise men, not wise women – and right away we discover something interesting. The Wise Men or Magi show up in Jerusalem after the birth of Jesus. That runs contrary to many of our nativity scenes that show the shepherds and the Magi arriving in Bethlehem at the same time. The shepherds were there the night Jesus was born. The Magi came sometime later.

It is possible these men may have travelled up to 1000 miles on their trek. In Matthew 2:16 we are told that Herod decided to kill all boy children 2 years old and younger so apparently from the time the star first appeared it could have took them up to two years to locate where Christ was. What possibly could have motivated them to make a treacherous 1,000-mile journey across the desert? There’s only one answer to that question – they have come to see a baby King. This is fascinating isn’t it.  They knew a baby had been born but they didn’t know where. They knew he was a King but didn’t know His name. So they come to Jerusalem, the capital city, seeking help. It actually makes sense that they went to Jerusalem because they wanted to welcome the “King of the Jews.” They guessed that this newborn king was the son of Herod.  They assume that everyone must know about this baby. But a great surprise awaits them. Verse 2 adds a detail that has baffled and intrigued Bible scholars and astronomers for 2,000 years: “We have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him.”

What was “this star in the east?” There are many theories that I am not going into now but whatever the bright star was, it certainly got the attention of the Magi. It helps to remember that these men were students of the sky. That means they would not be frightened or put off by anything unusual that suddenly appeared to them. The sudden appearance of a bright star would make perfect sense to them and would in fact fit what they already believed. You might say that if God wanted to get a message to these men, He picked the perfect way.  The Magi had no trouble gaining an audience with King Herod. That fact alone shows us how important and distinguished they were. Herod wants to know why they were there. When he finds out that they have come to worship a new King, he then wants to know where this threat to his throne was located. He was very disturbed.

So he turns to the scribes and religious leaders for advice. He turns to the word of God.  He has only one question in verse 4: Where is this child to be born? The scribes don’t have to look it up. They already know the answer. 700 years earlier the prophet Micah in Micah 5:2 had predicted the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem. That was common knowledge in Israel.

If you add what the scribes knew to what the Magi had figured out, you can conclude that the signs of Jesus’ coming were clear enough for anyone to see. God always speaks loud enough for a willing ear to hear. Something for us all to remember. These Magi heard and did something; they responded and made the long hard journey on the back of camels.  The religious scholars knew the scriptures, knew he would be born locally in Bethlehem but did they go and greet him? No, they did nothing!

As the Magi set out for Bethlehem, the star they saw in the east suddenly reappears. Verse 9 is very specific. It says the star went on before them until it came and stood over the very place where the baby Jesus was.  The end of their perseverance, their long, arduous journey was at hand. They were overjoyed.

Verse 11 tells us that “on coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him.” That again confirms that Jesus was no longer in the stable but in a house with his mother.

It makes you wonder why they weren’t disappointed when they finally found Jesus. After all, He did not look like a king. His home did not look like a castle. He had no sceptre in his hand, commanded no armies, gave no speeches, passed no laws. He maybe could not walk or talk. There was nothing to make you think he was a King. To the outward eye, he was nothing but a peasant child born in dire poverty.

But to the Magi, he was a King. He possessed more royalty in a cradle than Herod had in his fine palace. Somehow these wise seekers saw beyond the present and into the future – and in deep faith, they worshipped him.

Think of the inherent contrast. Although we read that the Magi met King Herod, they made no effort to worship him. But when they finally find young King Jesus, these educated and extremely intelligent men fell on their faces before Him. To this baby they gave the honour due a king. What Herod craved, the baby received.

Now we come to the very familiar detail, the one for which the Magi are most remembered in verse 11: “Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”  The gifts they bring are expensive and represent a worthy tribute – and there’s more to them than meets the eye.

Gold is one of the rarest and most expensive metals. It is fit for a king and the king Jesus was there.

Frankincense was in constant use by the priests in the temple and the ultimate priest, the one who was to make final reconciliation between God and humankind was before them.

Myrrh was used to embalm the dead. The man born to be king was the man born to die.  John 19:39 tells us that after Jesus died, his body was wrapped in linen along with 75 pounds of myrrh and other spices. The gift of myrrh then, pictures his suffering and death.

In those three gifts we see who he is, (King of Kings) what he came to do, (to reconcile man to God) and what it cost him (his suffering and crucifixion).

Now, what can we learn from these wise men? What possible relevance can they have to our lives in the world we live in today, especially as we begin this new year?

1. These men met God in the midst of their work. God can and will communicate to you as you are faithful to what He has called you to do, if you are listening, of course.  He will meet you right where you are. These astrologers were doing their jobs when God spoke to them. God can do the same in your life.

2. They found their way by consulting Scripture. When they started out they followed the bright star. When they got sidetracked in Jerusalem, they went to the Word of God to find out where the Messiah was to be born. We are all on a journey. Have you lost your way recently? Are you just going in circles? Instead of trying to figure everything out on your own, or even consulting a friend, why not look to God’s Word for direction?

3. They gave themselves in worship first. Before they gave what they had in their hands, they first gave their hearts to Jesus. They bowed down and worshipped and then they opened their treasures. God wants your life before He wants your gifts. Have you surrendered yourself and submitted yourself totally to the absolute Lordship of Jesus Christ and do this on a daily basis?

When we look at the Magi with their faith, their insight, their wholehearted search and adoring worship, we can only be amazed.  They were Gentiles and at the time of Matthew’s writing, Gentiles were flooding into the church whereas most of his Jewish compatriots did not want to know. It was mysterious and quite surprising. But had not Isaiah foretold something very similar? In our old Testament reading in Ch 60 of Isaiah we read, “Arise shine for your light has come and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.  See darkness covers the earth and thick darkness over the peoples”, and that is what was happening all around Matthew among the Jews. “But the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you”. That too had happened to thousands and Matthew could give personal testimony to the fact. “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn” continues Isaiah.  That movement began with the visit of the Magi and has continued to this day.

The only hope for the world is Jesus.  Jesus is King of Kings, Lord of Lords who gave himself up on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins to bring us to salvation, to eternal life.  Isn’t that an amazing fact as we begin 2009. Something we can hold on to when the going gets tough.

I looked up the word hope in a thesaurus and other words for hope means expect, anticipate, wish, look forward to, trust. Those Magi, those wise men certainly expected to find the king, they anticipated no doubt with excitement that they would find him at the end of their journey, that is what they wished and looked forward to but most of all they trusted God for his guidance and his promises that He would always be with them.

  • When we look around and see the world we live in today and people without hope what can we give them.
  • When you think of your own personal life in the situation you are in at present, what is your hope?
  • When you think of our Church, what is your hope and vision for the future?
  • When you think of the world as it is at present, what is your hope for its future?

As we reflect on the experience of the Magi, how high are your expectations? Do you anticipate the good things that God has in store for you, for us as a Church, for the world?  And as we wish and look forward to great things, surprises that only God can give (don’t forget what we heard in these last few weeks – nothing is impossible with God!) are you able to trust God for direction?   Even after they found Jesus, the Magi were still listening to God and his warnings about going home another way to avoid Herod.  They didn’t need a sat nav for direction, they just needed God.

These Magi persevered through the hard long journey and came and worshipped the King.   As we saw they brought him three gifts and in those gifts we see who he is, what he came to do and what is cost him.

And like the Magi, we bow in wonder before a God who could love us that much.  Amen.

JB

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