St Barnabas and St Michael’s 3rd January 2016
Reading – Matthew 2:1-12
So how well were you listening to our gospel reading this morning? I have six statements here about our passage and all I want you to do is to tell me if they are true or false:
There were three wise men who came from the East.
The three wise men were kings.
They were called Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.
They went straight to King Herod in Jerusalem.
They arrived in Bethlehem and went to the stable.
They met the shepherds around the manger.
One of the problems with well-known passages of Scripture is that we think we already know what they are all about. Who hasn’t been in a nativity play with three kings bearing gifts? Or seen them squeezed into the back of a stable alongside the shepherds? Of course there is nothing wrong in making a Bible passage entertaining, and engaging with it imaginatively. But if we are not careful, we can miss out on what the gospel writer was actually trying to say, and make the details more important than the message.
So then, this morning, I want us to try and look at this passage with fresh eyes, to see what is actually there, and to work out how the message of Matthew applies to us. Because I believe that when we let the text speak to us, we will find some important clues about who Jesus is and how we also can come to love and know Him today. And just as traditionally there were three kings, so I am going to follow tradition and bring out three points in particular from our reading:
And the first one is this, that Jesus is a Saviour sought by strangers.
Now Matthew was writing to a mainly Jewish audience. We know this from the way he organises his gospel, from his interest in the history of Israel, from the many references to Old Testament. That’s why, when he wants to introduce the main character in his gospel, it is only natural for him to begin with a family tree. Because, to a Jewish audience, nothing was more important than to show you had the right ancestry and you could prove you came from the proper bloodline. So the first seventeen verses of Matthew’s gospel are devoted to proving that Jesus is a direct descendant of Abraham and David, and it’s hard to overestimate just how vital that would have been for those who first heard the gospel. If Jesus wasn’t a child of Abraham, or a son of David, then they would have dismissed any further claims about this Jesus being a Messiah.
Matthew’s gospel is written to Jewish people to show that Jesus is a Jewish Messiah. So having given us Jesus’ family tree, Matthew then concentrates not on Mary, but on Joseph. Joseph is in many ways the ideal embodiment of a faithful follower of the Old Testament law. We are told quite clearly he is a righteous man. He plans to deal sensitively and compassionately with Mary who unexpectedly has become pregnant. He responds obediently to the angel’s message even though he does not fully understand it. He behaves honourably towards Mary and does not take advantage of her vulnerable state. And so it is only fitting that chapter 1 ends with this righteous man Joseph giving the baby the name Jesus. We can have no doubts that he is the right person to act as father to this very special child.
But then comes the big surprise at the start of chapter 2: 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? What are a load of foreigners doing in this story? Matthew’s audience would have expected the story of this Jewish Messiah to follow traditional lines – maybe to include an account of Joseph and Mary visiting the temple, or Jesus being circumcised. But we find those details in Luke’s gospel, not in Matthew. Instead Matthew tells us that the first people who come to worship Jesus are a load of foreigners, distant visitors from the East.
This is a first hint of a message that comes out very strongly in Matthew’s gospel, namely that the people who are most open to Jesus are not the ones you might expect. This Jesus isn’t going to be just a Jewish Messiah for Jewish people (although that is who He is). He is going to be a Jewish Messiah for the whole world, and for people who were thought to be beyond the pale of organised religion. That’s why Matthew focuses so much on these wise men, or Magi. Not only did they not belong to the Jewish people. They were also astrologers who spent their time predicting the future from the stars, something that the Jewish law did not allow. Yet they are the ones who are looking for the king of the Jews.
Sometimes, you see, it is the most surprising of people who are open to the good news of Jesus. And I think that is a message we need to take on board as we look forward to the coming year and plan our outreach. We have a natural tendency to imagine that the church will grow by reaching people who are rather like us, people who, perhaps, have some kind of church background or have some understanding of the Bible.
Actually the most open people can sometimes be folk who have never set foot in church or who have never read a word of Scripture. Like the Magi they may have questions and they may not fully understand what they are asking. But what is important is that we help them find Jesus. And let me stress – that is not the same as introducing them to church, or expecting them to be able to read or write. We need to show them Jesus by loving them as they are and meeting them where they are at. How we do this in 2016 – well, I certainly don’t have all the answers. But we all need to think and pray imaginatively how we might best reach the strangers who are seeking Jesus, because they are out there, and are likely to stay out there, unless we learn how to effectively communicate with them.
Jesus is a Saviour sought by strangers.
Secondly, He is a Saviour rejected by the religious.
Now in the popular telling of this story it is only King Herod who is upset by the arrival of the wise men. King Herod hears of the birth of another king, fears he has a rival and immediately hatches a plan to get rid of Him. But what does Matthew tell us in verse 3? When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. Isn’t that striking? It seems that the whole city of Jerusalem was gripped with fear when the wise men showed up. Indeed, if we were to look at the original text, we would see that word translated here as “disturbed” is rendered elsewhere as “terrified”. So here apparently are strangers from the East riding through the city gates, asking about the King of the Jews and finding only fear and disbelief. Isn’t that really rather strange? How do we explain such a strong reaction to their news?
Perhaps there were some people who simply didn’t believe that after so many years of waiting their prayers were finally being answered. After all, the last prophecy about the Messiah had been some four hundred years previously. It would have been all too easy for folk to lose hope that the Lord would act and they were simply not ready for the moment. I can relate to that. Sometimes when you have been praying for something for many years, it can be hard to accept that the Lord has finally given you the answer you’ve been looking for – especially if it’s not the answer you were expecting.
Perhaps there were others who were jealous that the birth had taken place in Bethlehem rather than in Jerusalem. If the Lord was really going to make good on His promises, He wouldn’t choose a place outside the capital would He? The Lord is surely interested only in important people in important places isn’t He? Whatever the wise men think they may have seen, they must have got their predictions wrong. Well, as the story unfolds, it is pretty clear that the wise men were right. But it must have offended many people that the Lord chose an unimportant village rather than the main city. Because even two thousand years later we still somehow imagine the Lord is more interested in some places and some people than in others, and as the Christmas story shows, nothing could be further from the truth.
But there’s an even stronger reason why the people in Jerusalem rejected the news of the Messiah’s birth and it’s this: they knew the Scriptures and the prophecies of old, but they didn’t let them affect how they lived. We can see this clearly from verses 5 and 6 where the chief priests and teachers of the law quote from that passage in Micah we looked at a few weeks back:
But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.
You see, it is one thing to know what the Bible says. It is another to act on its message. And isn’t there a lesson here for us? I hope that most, if not all of us, here today are in the habit of regularly reading or listening to Scripture. We have our daily Bible reading notes, or an app on our mobile. We spend a few minutes going through a few verses of the Bible, and then what? We breathe a sigh of relief we have done our duty, and then get on with the rest of the day? Or as we go about our business, we think about what we have read and allow the Word of God to shape our thoughts and our actions?
The apostle James who like Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience wrote these words, in James 1:22: Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Yet when we look at the Christmas story we find no record of anyone from Jerusalem going to Bethlehem, even though the village was only about six miles away. There is no account of any priest or teacher of the law checking out the wise men’s story for themselves. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Are we prepared in the coming year to do what the Bible says? Or are we in fact more like these religious teachers than we are prepared to admit?
Jesus is a Saviour sought by strangers. He is also a Saviour rejected by the religious. And finally, He is a Saviour found by faith.
Who exactly were the Magi who turned up in Jerusalem? We call them wise men, but in some ways it would be perhaps more appropriate to term them “scientists”. After all, they devoted themselves to observing natural phenomena, drawing conclusions and forming a theory based upon those conclusions. Now unlike modern scientists the conclusions they drew were not founded on verifiable data, and they saw connections between events in the natural world and historical events that we would find implausible. No-one today would see a star appearing and reckon it heralded the birth of a king. But God spoke to them in a way they would recognise and respond to.
Where the wise men went wrong is in the actions they took on their conclusions. They understood that one called the King of the Jews had been born. Therefore they went to the capital city of the Jews. They ignored the evidence of the star pointing them towards Bethlehem because that evidence did not fit in with their understanding. But then even modern science today so often depends on a particular interpretation of the facts. Sometimes people will stand and say, “Science has disproved religion”, as if science deals in absolute truth which cannot be denied. Actually, so much of science is based on interpretation, and what may be accepted theory now may be disproved in a few years’ time. So, for example, evolution is still only a theory and our understanding of evolution is, well, evolving.
The point is, all human knowledge is only partial, because none of us are God. All of us select the truths that most suit us, because we prefer to be right rather than wrong. That is why we cannot ultimately find God through our own efforts, because God is beyond the understanding of even the cleverest scientist or theologian. Instead we need to ask God for the gift of faith, so that He makes Himself known to us.
And really the story of the wise men is all about God giving the gift of faith to those who were seeking. That’s how I believe we need to understand verse 9: After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. Matthew here isn’t writing a scientific paper on the astronomical phenomenon and I don’t believe we need to take his words as a literal description of what happened. Rather, he is making the point that the Lord guided them to the right place because from the outset they were wanting to worship the newborn King.
It’s for this reason I think all those stories each year about which star or comet the wise men saw are missing the point. The point is, God revealed himself to the wise men in the way they could understand. And the joy they experienced when they saw the star came from the fact they realised their searching was over. The Lord had led them to Jesus. Their quest was fulfilled and the king had been found. No wonder verse 11 tells us how: On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him.
And how did the wise men express their new found faith? Let’s read on to the rest of the verse: Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. Because, you see, faith is far more than simply believing or understanding the right things. Faith is about actively offering all that we are and all that we have to God because we found Jesus. After all, as we have seen, the religious teachers understood who Jesus was and where he was to be found. But they paid no visit, and they made no offering. Indeed our passage today ends with the wise men returning by another route, because no-one would welcome them back in Jerusalem or listen to what they had discovered.
So to sum up: when we allow this passage to speak to us as Matthew intended, we find there is much here we can learn about who Jesus is and how we can know and love Him. This Jesus is one sought by strangers – those on the outside who are seeking but do not know necessarily where to look. He is one rejected by the religious – who may know about Jesus but do not let that knowledge affect their lives. He is the one found by faith – because our own understanding of God is so limited.
This year let us help the stranger to find and let us make sure we are not too religious to listen to the Lord. And let us pray that the Lord gives us all the faith that we grow in love and knowledge of our Saviour so that we give the glory to Him.