Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘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.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then 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.” When 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
To most people raised in even slight proximity to the church, the story of the wise men is familiar. But what does the story tell us about God?
We receive little detail about these men chasing a “star” in search of a newborn king, a star no one else seems to have noticed. Tradition has led us to think of three wise men, but the Bible doesn’t give us an exact number.
However many there were, it is likely they were astrologers from the area of ancient Babylon. It also is quite possible they made their journey because they saw what we would consider a set of complicated signs, all involving conjunctions of planets with a star in a particular constellation.
If such details interest you, I wrote about them during the Christmas season in 2013, linking to a useful NBC News article that has a great slideshow presentation at the end.
Today, let’s simply consider some odd facts. First, an event in a tiny village had distant effects via the stars and planets. Second, these wise men would not have understood God the way a Jew did, and yet God drew them into the story of his ultimate intervention in history. And third, didn’t I learn as a child in Sunday school that astrology is a pagan practice, something generally to be avoided?
It seems the big lesson God gives us in this story is how surprising he can be as he tries to shower us in grace and save us from sin. He not only will meet us where we are, he will work through our current practices to change us. (The Methodist term is “prevenient grace,” the love God tries to show us even before we acknowledge who God is.)
When I think of the wise men seeing signs of Christ’s birth in the sky, I also think of all the stories I’ve heard of nonbelievers discovering God in unlikely places: in bars, in prison, in dive hotels—any of those locations or moments where we might wrongly think God is not present.
On a less serious note, during this time of year, we always hear some of our more legalistic brethren claiming it’s improper to use Christmas trees or wreaths in our celebrations because they once were linked to a pagan practice. The issue will arise again at Easter when we decorate with symbols of new life, like an Easter egg.
But even if these items were once used in pagan rituals, it seems to me God’s magnanimous attitude shines through when we convert these symbols to celebrate Christ. Hey, we are a people who believe that one day, every aspect of creation will acknowledge God’s saving work through Jesus Christ! Is there something wrong with getting a head start on the conversion process?
This story of the wise men also has tremendous irony in it. Pagans from far away wanted to pay the Christ child “homage,” but the nominal leader of the Jews was terrified. After thousands of years of prophecy, he was positioned to lead when the great promise was fulfilled, but instead, King Herod and the people around him immediately began seeking a way to undo God’s great work.
Herod did not stand a chance, of course. What kind of people honestly believe they can undo what God has done?
Herod did have the power to inflict damage as he resisted God. Ultimately, he killed all the children age 2 or younger in Bethlehem, but not until after God had warned Joseph to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus.
There’s another lesson for us. When we resist God’s will, we can do great harm—what is resistance to God’s will to be called, except sin? Sin leads to evil acts, and evil acts hurt people.
The last part of the story is the best, of course. God led the wise men on from their visit with Herod, and there was the baby, just as promised. They gave him gifts. What a joy that must have been, to give the Christ child a gift! And even better, they were able to kneel before him.
Was it worship? Translators debate how to deal with the word describing their act. We kneel in worship, but the wise men also would have been likely to kneel before a king.
We can say for certain that the moment marked a dawning awareness. These wise men would have understood God was working in the world in powerful ways, and that they had been drawn into the plan. They even would continue to hear from God in dreams, protecting the child and themselves in the process.
They were a foreshadowing of Jesus’ work on the cross decades later, and the church’s Holy Spirit-inspired work up to today. God truly calls to all people, regardless of their location or circumstances. After all, “For God so loved the world … .”
In 2017, may we worship with great certainty the Christ we have seen through Scripture and experienced in our hearts, giving him our gift of faithfulness.
The featured image is “Magi Journeying,” James Tissot, c. 1886, Brooklyn Museum.