Drew Williams, Pastoral Intern
Congratulations! We’ve made it to the end of the year! And now that we’ve made it through Christmas, I’ve got a confession to make:
I don’t really like giving gifts.
Don’t get me wrong, I love giving to people. I love showing them love with a thoughtful or special gift. I just get really stressed out about picking out the right gift.
What if they don’t like it? What if they already have it?
And then when you get an unexpected gift from someone, and you hadn’t planned on getting them something, and you’re like, OH NO, I’m running out of time to get them something and I still can’t figure out what to get for my wife! I don’t have extra brain space to figure out another gift!
And then I remember back to when I was a kid. I was NEVER stressed about gift giving. Maybe that was because I didn’t have to worry about who to get a gift for or whether I was staying in budget. My parents helped me decide who to go shopping for, and they usually were the ones who gave me money to buy the gifts. It’s so much easier to give gifts to others when you have someone directing you and giving you the resources to give the gift.
Some people think that the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas traces its roots back to the gifts given to Jesus by the wise men, and that’s the passage of Scripture we’ll be looking at today.
For many of us, this is a very familiar passage, and so it’s easy to not fully engage with this as the Word of God, speaking to us even today. So as we get ready to hear this passage, try and push past your memories of nostalgia and cartoons and singing kings riding on camels. Let’s get ready to hear God speak to us through his word today, as we hear Matthew 2:1-12.
Matthew sets the scene for our story by highlighting what the state of the world is like when Jesus was born. While Luke’s gospel gives us the grisly details of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, their inability to find room at the guesthouse, Jesus’s birth in the barn, greeted by the animals and shepherds who were strangers, Matthew is concerned with other details. In fact, Jesus is barely mentioned in the first two chapters of Matthew.
In Matthew chapter 1, after giving a genealogy that connects Jesus to the line of David and back to Abraham, Matthew focuses on Joseph — on his decision about whether or not to follow through on marrying Mary after discovering she was pregnant. An angel comes to him in a dream and encourages him with the knowledge that God has been active in this situation, and tells him to stick with Mary. Joseph does.
And then Matthew fast-forwards and says, [V1] “after Jesus was born, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east show up in Jerusalem.” For Matthew’s first readers, this immediately sets the stakes, because they knew what “the time of Herod” was known for.
Herod the Great, as he was called, was a non-Jew who had been placed by the Romans as the ruler of the area. He was King of Israel. And besides being known for his great architecture projects, he was also known for being terrified of losing his power.
Herod had ten wives, and lots of sons from those wives, and pretty soon, all the sons started to have some tension about who would become heir to the throne. It seems that all this tension really got to Herod and started making him suspicious that someone would take matters into their own hands and fight their way to the throne with violence and murder. And so Herod responded how anyone who is desperately clinging to control would — he took matters into his own hands.
He killed his firstborn son before the same could happen to him. Then he ordered the killing of his first wife (probably because he knew how she’d respond to the death of her son). Then he killed his mother-in-law. Then he ended up killing two more sons. All to protect his throne.
And now we see why Matthew starts here to bring context to his story. Jesus was born in the time of murderous, insecure king Herod. Herod is like every other ruler that assumes that they determine the whole story by how they assert their power. But Matthew doesn’t let us dwell on this. Before we can even reflect on what Herod teaches us, Matthew tells us that “Magi from the east” arrive in Jerusalem.
These Magi were probably not kings, as the familiar Christmas carol claims, but were instead wealthy astrologers, members of a priestly class who looked for messages in the stars and in dreams. The fact that they came “from the east” means they were from Babylon or Persia or the Arabian Peninsula. Today, this would be modern day Syria, or Jordan, or Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps they had heard some of the prophecies about the messiah when Jews were in exile in Babylon and Persia hundreds of years before. Maybe those stories got passed down. In any case, they arrive in Jerusalem and ask, [V2] “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
These were foreigners. Foreigners with foreign worship practices. They studied and probably worshipped the stars. And yet, their own form of worship led them to look for “the king of the Jews.” It’s incredible to me that they didn’t have to change their worship methods in order to meet Jesus. Astrology led them to the Creator of the stars. Matthew is showing us that from the beginning, God was calling more than just the Jews to him.
So these foreigners, these “wise men,” go to the capital of Israel, to the king’s house, expecting to be throwing a baby shower or birthday party for the new heir to the throne. And this makes sense. This is where you’d expect to meet the new king: in the capital of the country. In the palace of royalty.
But instead, they meet King Herod there. And he is understandably shaken. Matthew says he was “disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”
Herod, the one who killed his own family members to hold on to his power, is told there is a new king that has just been born. A king of the Jews.
Herod, the “king” of Israel, who spent his whole career building incredible architectural feats, many of which were forts and military installations to protect against anyone who might want to attack him and take away his kingdom, has just been greeted by foreigners who are not there to attack HIM, but to pay homage to a different king.
You can understand why he’s disturbed. And all of Jerusalem is disturbed with him, which means that the Magi’s arrival must have been a bit of a big affair. And when everyone finds out why they are there, a collective shudder rolls through the town that knows what happens when someone poses a threat to Herod’s power and influence.
But Herod is no dummy. He’s held on to his power this long, and it’s not through flying off the handle and losing his cool. So, like any royal host, he puts up his new guests and treats them well, and then he calls together all “the people’s” chief priests and teachers. The Magi are looking for the king of the Jews. Herod is just “king” over Israel — he’s not Jewish — so he gathers all the Jewish leaders to advise him.
And it’s so interesting to me that he asks them where the Messiah is to be born. See, Herod has been around long enough to know that the Jews are waiting for a Savior, a king to come establish a kingdom of peace that will last forever. So Herod connects the nature of this Savior Messiah to that of a ruling king, in the same way that the Jews of the time would have.
And so, the Jewish leaders and teachers of the law answer with a prophecy from Micah chapter 5, which says that Bethlehem will be the place that the ruler who is a shepherd will come from. Then Herod calls the Magi back to him secretly to ask them exactly when the star appeared. I think that Herod calls them back secretly because he’s trying to downplay their arrival. He doesn’t want to make it seem credible that there actually is a new king that has just been born. By calling them publicly, he would be giving credence to their claims, and that would possibly cause more people in Jerusalem to believe them, and Herod doesn’t want that.
But it’s clear that Herod does believe them, because he asks about the star. But his belief in their statement is not one that is earnest, even though he says that he wants to go and pay homage to the new king. His belief is based on his fear. He believes them because his power is threatened. And any threat to his power is worth his full attention. And later on, when the Magi don’t come back to him because of the warning they received in a dream, Herod responds with fear and violence, killing all the toddler boys in the village of Bethlehem in order to preserve his own power, influence, liberty, and comfort.
Herod asserts control over the situation, because anything else would mean having to change, having to lose what he’s used to, having to lose what he’s familiar with and comfortable with.
Another group that we see in this part of the story is the Jewish leadership. If they had heard the initial announcement from the Magi, and then talked to Herod about the prophecy, they would have been able to make the same connection that Herod did. However, if they BELIEVED in the prophecy, they didn’t show it. They didn’t put their belief into action. They sure don’t go on the short trip to Bethlehem, which was only 6 miles away. It would have taken a few hours to walk, but they didn’t go.
Perhaps, they too didn’t want to upset the status quo. After all, they had a good thing going with the current leadership put in place by Rome. They were called upon as advisors to Herod from time to time. And maybe they thought that Herod’s leadership, though he wasn’t the Messiah, was better than Rome directly coming in and oppressing the area. In any case, they are not mentioned again in this section of the story, showing us that they were mere actors in the drama that God was orchestrating. Their purpose was to help connect the natural revelation of the star that the Magi had seen to the written revelation of Scripture so that Jesus could be sought out. And, after serving that purpose, their inaction leaves them behind in this story.
Instead, we see the Magi respond eagerly to the prophecy of the Messiah. Their belief in God’s action and invitation is clear because they actually GO and WORSHIP. They’ve already travelled a long way to get to Jerusalem, and they happily get back on the road. They seek. They ask. They’ve already searched this far, and now they keep searching until they find a young peasant girl and her son. They rejoice. Even though this isn’t the type of king they expected, they trust the leading of the star and the extra help of the prophecy. They bow, showing their submission to this new king. They GIVE gifts. And these gifts are the type of gifts that travelling dignitaries would present to kings or even gods. Clearly, the Magi thought of Jesus as the true king of the Jews, the Messiah sent from God to bless the whole world. They worship him. They listen to the message in the dream and respond by not returning to Herod. That’s the image we receive of how the Magi react to God’s invitation and message. Listen and respond. See and respond.
When we look at these three groups in this story, it’s clear that Following Jesus means GOING to where he is and GIVING him the best we have. But we don’t do this on our own. It all starts with receiving God’s GRACE.
The Magi didn’t just wake up one day and decide to travel to Jerusalem to search for Jesus. God sent them the message of the star, something that meant something to THEM, something that piqued their interest, something that called them to investigate.
First, we receive, THEN we respond.
But how are we going to respond? The entire focus of this passage is on the Magi. They are the central characters of this story, but do we identify with them? Or do we identify more with one of the other characters in this passage?
The Jewish leaders respond with silence. They seemingly ignore the possibility that the Messiah has come. They’d rather keep things the same. They’d rather not risk the trip. They’d rather not rock the boat. They’d rather not do the work to seek out where God could be at work. I wonder where they were when Herod ordered the killings of all the young boys in Bethlehem?
Herod responds with fear. The idea of someone other than him being in control scares him. He doesn’t like to submit to the authority of others. He doesn’t want to give up what he’s comfortable with.
2020 has shown us all the things that we can’t CONTROL. It has been peeling back all the layers of security that we’ve come to rely on, all the layers of comfort that we insulate ourselves with. I don’t have to think about big problems in the world when I’m focused on myself!
When our kingdom is threatened, when our freedoms are challenged, do we respond like Herod? Working in secret to try and CONTROL outcomes so that we don’t lose authority and power?
Then there’s the Magi. The Magi respond by leaving their home, travelling to unfamiliar places, seeking and asking. They follow the light of the star by GOING and GIVING.
First, we see, then we go. And since we’ve already been given EVERYTHING in Jesus, that makes it possible for us to give our best to those God is sending us to.
That’s what is so cool about the gifts that the Magi present to Jesus. Most people think there were three Magi because there were three gifts, but we don’t know how many Magi there were in their travelling group. We just know there were three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Now, you don’t have to know about ancient gift customs or even what myrrh is to know that these are not your normal gifts you give to a toddler. Now that I have a toddler, I wonder if little Jesus was more interested in the box those things came in then the actual gifts themselves.
No, it’s clear that these gifts were not for Jesus, or at least, they weren’t for Jesus to play with or use right away. But what’s incredible is that I’m sure these expensive and costly gifts definitely came in handy when Joseph and Mary and Jesus were on the run for the next few years. I’m sure it helped with travel costs, living expenses while they were moving from place to place, security for the family while Joseph was searching for work in Egypt. God prompted the Magi to give their best, to give incredible gifts to Jesus’ family so that they would be able to follow his leading to escape Israel while Herod was still in power. The Magi GO and GIVE, even though they don’t know God’s purpose for the gifts.
Even today, following Jesus means GOING to where he is and GIVING him the best we have. And we are able to do that because he has already GIVEN us everything. We’re able to do that because of the incredible GRACE we’ve received.
So, if we want to learn from the example of the Magi, what can we do today? Well, first, LOOK for Jesus. Where is he at work in your life? Where do we see his signs of activity around us? Where is the star of his grace and compassion and concern for the lowly pointing?
Then, ASK. Ask God how he’s calling you to respond. Are you to go? Are you to give? Are you to tell?
Jesus is constantly inviting us to be a part of what he’s doing. Even in this passage, we see God inviting everyone to participate. It’s a collaborative effort that takes the Magi connecting with Herod connecting with the Jewish leadership to find Jesus. Everyone is drawn in. And Jesus is still doing that today.
Would we rather spend our time and money building our own kingdom? Would we rather spend our LIFE on things concerned with our own comfort and authority? If we are, then I don’t think we can say it’s Jesus that we are following, because he constantly gave AWAY his power for the sake of others.
Following Jesus means GOING to where he is, and GIVING him our best. He’s already given us his GRACE and is constantly CALLING us to join him. So let’s LOOK for where he’s at work around us already. And then let’s ASK God how we can respond. We GET TO join in with God’s mission of restoration in the world even as we’re still in the process of learning and growing. God doesn’t wait for us to become perfect before he can use us. He chooses sinful, broken people to accomplish his work.. And along the way, Jesus is actually transforming us to become more and more like him, bringing glory to God in the highest and peace on earth through how we reflect his image to those around us. And that’s good news.