Matthew 2: The Magi
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on .
During the talk, the chapter is read from the NIV (New International Version) by Moira Curry.
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Next week Moira is going to be perhaps taking a different look at the wise men, but today, I’d like to take us on a journey that perhaps is a little less Christmassy, but a view of the Magi, what we can learn today from their journey and so Moira is going to read from Matthew Chapter two for us.
Moira: 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 saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“ ‘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.’ ”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
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. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”
Paul W: Thank you. At the outset of today, we are going to be thinking of what might lay ahead. We consider with excitement or with fear what might occur in this unknown future. Let’s today familiarize ourselves afresh with the men who came from the east. Who became overjoyed when they met with the Christ child. Who knew they had to return home a different way because of the sinister man they met on the way known as Herod the Great.
The first thing I find interesting about this journey is that the men had seen a star rising. Somehow, they knew its importance and had decided that to follow it would bring them to the king of the Jews. Now, if they were from the east, it’s unlikely they would have been Jewish, but yet as excited and interested Gentiles, they still knew there was something more interesting in this star than just a normal star.
Maybe they knew some of the Jewish prophecies about the Messiah. They set out together with their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh, they had prepared for their journey and obediently followed this star. That’s interesting enough, why you would some Gentiles follow a star? Then, there’s a twist in this story, which I’d never really thought about before. They went to where Herod the Great lived, in Jerusalem. I’ve often wondered why it was that these men had decided to follow the star from wherever the East was, now to go off piste as it were, to go to Herod’s Palace. Granted a king would be naturally born of royal descent and so would be perhaps born in a palace.
But they followed the star probably for miles and miles and miles. Why did they now decide to hop off their camels in search of a king away perhaps from the star? Did they stop following it assuming that they’d found the place where they’d find the King of the Jews? We’re not told. All we know is that the Magi, the wise men, were only human. They were fallible, they could get it wrong. They went as it were off piste. We as humans, wise, unwise, learned, academic, unacademic can still go on our own way.
We too can ignore the signs to go the right way and decide to go our own way too. But yet, that doesn’t stop God from waiting patiently for us. Just as the wise men stopped at Herod’s palace to find out that this was the wrong place, it didn’t stop them from completing their journey later on. Our messiness shouldn’t stop us from completing our life’s journey. In amongst this Christmas journey, there remains a loving God who calls us to a better path. A path where we discover that we are being forgiven for our mistakes and where we forgive others as we journey with them too.
I’m getting sidetracked, Matthew’s account of the birth narratives and the Magi includes a more sinister side. It includes the news that Herod the Great is really unhappy about the news of another being called, the king of the Jews. That’s a massive understatement. Our translations say that Herod was disturbed, indeed it says that the whole city was disturbed. In the Greek, this word means, to be greatly troubled, or agitated, or stirred. Herod is exceptionally uncomfortable with the news that the wise men bring.
Having quickly brought together the Jewish chief priests and people, scribes, Herod is told that there is a prophecy about the coming Messiah who would be expected to overthrow the oppressors like Herod. Herod decides to do something awful about it. Herod decides that politically, he must really be the only leader of the nation, nobody but he can lead these people. To ensure his political future remained as it was, he had to kill all the boys of a certain age or below a certain age in that area just to save his own skin. So that he wouldn’t be overthrown by another fake king of the Jews. That was his title now, that’s what he really wanted to be. To be the revered king of the Jews; there would be no other king than Herod.
To understand what’s really going on here, as we did with Joseph a few weeks ago, we need to look under the bonnet and find out what made Herod the Great tick. What would make him go to such lengths for greed and power and total evil towards others? Yes, the bigger picture is of course that, people worship Jesus. But, we often airbrush out the bits of the Christmas story and quite rightly so, in so many circumstances. To put the whole story into context, into its horrific context, we need to understand this picture, the whole picture, of what’s happening here and why it’s so important that Jesus had to be safe. Kenneth Bailey’s book, “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” helpfully gives a sketch of the background of who Herod was and what made him want to have the title, King of the Jews. Bailey notes that racially, Herod was an Arab. He was one of four children and he was the only one with a Greek name. Religiously, Herod apparently was Jewish.
In 135 BC, the Jewish ruler, Hyrcanus, possibly that name, conquered Herod’s father’s tribe known as the Idumaeans in the southern part of the Holy Land and forced them to become Jews. Herod’s grandfather, Antipater, was appointed Governor of the province which made Herod a Jew. Yet culturally, Herod was Greek. He spoke Greek, he made Jerusalem into a Greek city and, of course, politically, Herod was Roman. His position as Governor was to lead the Roman army in that area. Bailey says, being racially Arab, religiously Jewish, culturally Greek and politically Roman, Herod was a complex man.
Thousands of boys under the age of two must be slaughtered so that Herod remains King. So that nobody else can receive that title King of the Jews. In this chapter, Chapter two, there are four Old Testament prophecies. The chief priests knew the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, in verse five and six. The prophets knew that something would occur, meaning that Jesus had to flee to Egypt, verse 15. They knew that something sickening would reduce families to weeping and mourning for children in verses 17 and 18. How clever of Matthew to knit together the politics of the Nativity with the truth of the Messiahship of Jesus backed up by Old Testament prophecy.
Of course, Matthew didn’t write his gospel for us. He wrote it in the 1st century, fully aware of the political waves that the birth of the true King of the Jews would bring. He knew his readers would want to see how differently Jesus would grow up and deal with the Romans. With hindsight, he saw how the title King of the Jews would be the charge that had Jesus executed upon the cross, and that this would be nailed to the cross above his head. With all the background laden upon us, but perhaps not so much known to the Magi, they obediently continue their journey with the star, following it to its end in Bethlehem, above the place where Jesus was.
By this time, perhaps Jesus was toddling around. Overjoyed as they were to see this little boy, they worshipped Jesus, offering their gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. Did they give these gifts prophetically or were they some things that were easily obtainable? Who can say? The Magi obediently journeyed. They saw the King of the Jews, they patiently waited and journeyed to see. They worshipped Him and they gave their gifts. By this time, you could forgive the wise men for being perhaps grumpy old wise men. They travelled for miles and miles. They’d gone to the wrong place and made Herod aware of another king of the Jews and had to travel again, but yet they remained faithful and obedient.
Something drove them on. Something deep and confirming and encouraging. A question for us, what does our faith drive us to do? What has our trust in Jesus driven us to do? More recently or in the past? What will your faith do to drive you on today? Do we continue even though the journey is tough? When we make mistakes and think that we’ve had enough, or perhaps, as with the star, we know there’s something positive in the action of following. The Magi following the star and in spite of the perils of the journey, they were overjoyed at its ending. Because, the star is not an end in itself. It’s about the journey. It’s about the following.
Just as the wise men found Jesus, only a couple of chapters ahead in Matthew four, Jesus first invitation to His disciples to follow Him, no longer an inanimate object to follow, but a human, follow the God in a body. Finally, Matthew tells us, the Magi even obediently follow instructions to return home via a different route so that they don’t have to bump into Herod and explain themselves. Here at the news of the baby Jesus, whose name means, God saves. God is in the business of saving lives of His followers.
We can’t overemphasize the political agenda here. Herod the Great, has a significant role in the birth narratives of Jesus, and incidentally, he meets the Magi and then instructs them on the way to go whilst all the time he is plotting to get rid of a whole generation of boys to his own ends. We can only be thankful that the Magi listen and obey. If not more importantly, we can be grateful to Joseph that faithful father and role model who thrives on doing the right thing, the best thing by taking Mary and Jesus to safety, by leaving their home country, becoming refugees for fear of their lives.
Has anything changed today? The number of displaced people in our world has never been higher. By the end of 2017, according to a report in July last year, there were 68.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world, including 25.4 million refugees. To put into context, that’s like the whole of France being moved out of France. That’s the whole of the UK being moved forcibly out of our homes for no faults of our own. We switch on our TVs to learn the plight of people being picked up in the English Channel trying to find a place of safety. We read how countries are seemingly becoming more selfishly controlling their borders, threatening to build walls to keep people out.
We hear of how families are being split up because of war over who owns what land, what faith people should have to live in a certain place. Syria, Sudan and even places where disasters come from natural phenomena. Just before Christmas, a tsunami as a result of the collapsed Anak Krakatau volcano in Indonesia killed over 400 people. People just going about their everyday business and we just switch over the channel. We just forget. The challenge remains the same as it was for the Nativity family. If they came to our doorstep today, would we tell them to go back to their own country, to back to where they belong?
Or, would we be driven by our faith to ignore all those barriers that the world tells us to put up, to treat our fellow humans as we would want to be treated ourselves? Would we find a loaf of bread, glass of water, and offer what hospitality we can? You see the Christmas story is not just what we see and experience each year on the 25th of December. It’s above and beyond the traditions and the candles, the trees and the gifts.
The first Christmas was hugely political Christmas. The Nativity family were driven out of their homes to be counted by the occupying Romans. There’s nothing new in people taking over land that doesn’t belong to them. The Nativity family became homeless and for no faults of their own. It’s not like they deserved to be homeless. There’s nothing new in that either, because nobody deserves to be treated inhumanely. People are still homeless and refugees today. As Ecclesiastes says, “There’s nothing new under the sun,” but perhaps we can respond more positively, perhaps more heavenly.
Our mission of the month, this month, every month we support a different Christian organization. This month for January is Christians Against Poverty. Christians Against Poverty is obviously a Christian organization that supports people getting out of poverty. It’s a free service and different churches across the country help others, whether they’re Christians or not, deal with their debts. It helps to restructure what they can live on, whilst giving back and paying back the debts that people have.
I was hoping to have a friend of mine come to preach at the end of the month, but unfortunately, she’s not available, but perhaps later on in the year. My friend Ruth, who is the Christians Against Poverty debt centre manager in Gillingham and Kent. Friend of mine does exceptionally good work and she goes above and beyond. It’s not just restructuring people’s debts but CAP, particularly the experience of Ruth that I’ve worked with in the past: she will go and buy people food; she will go and say, come along to the church if you’re lonely because of your debt, just come along to our church and we’ll be friendly, and we’ll have lunch, and we’ll do things together; if you want to get to know Jesus, then that’ll be fantastic. That is how CAP works.
At present, we can give thanks to the kind generosity of people in our area, our churches, our families, because the Runcorn and District Foodbank is full. I’ve never heard of a food bank being full before, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that food banks shouldn’t exist.
The story of the birth of Jesus becomes political. Particularly when Herod wanted the best glory, the best fame, the best name, King of the Jews. All that stuff, he just couldn’t take with him. Then, the chapter ends with two important things. Herod dies because that is what happens to people of faith and to people of none. That’s the way of life in this present age. We all go the same way. King Herod’s eternal fate is known only to God, but it opened up the way to the return of the king.
Still not perfect for Mary and Joseph because, the new governor of Judea was Archelaus and so, they moved to Galilee, to Nazareth. Secondly, and finally, we find the fourth prophecy of Matthew Chapter two, that Jesus would become known as a Nazarene. What we have in the birth chapters of Jesus is a mixture of journeys, of faith and following, of life and death, of beginnings and endings. It seems to have always been.
At the beginning of this New Year, let us be overjoyed with what we have, Jesus in our lives.
Let us be grateful too, for things that make us content. Let us remember that our following Jesus means that there is something that drives us on to ensure that Jesus is enthroned in our lives. By making this world as much as it can be heaven on earth to those around us. Let’s not just be grateful for what we have, but let’s journey with those who need. Let’s journey with those who need stuff to live and just importantly, journey with those who need to see Jesus. May they, and may we see Jesus in one another this year. Let’s pray.
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