Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, December 17, 2018
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The Visit of the Magi

 
 
Ephesians 3:1-12 and Matthew 2:1-12
 

It’s been a long time since I’ve preached on this passage.  Sometimes it’s interesting to go back and read a familiar story that you haven’t looked at in a long time.  It’s often surprising how things jump out at you that you just kind of glossed over before.  They’ve been there the whole time, but they just haven’t spoken to you yet.  We’ll talk about some of the things that spoke to me today, and hopefully they’ll speak to you as well.

 The first thing that hit me is that this story is only found in Matthew’s Gospel.  That’s interesting because Matthew is the great evangelist to the Hebrew people.  If this was going to be in someone’s Gospel, it should have been Luke, the great evangelist to the Gentiles.  But only Matthew mentions the visit of these foreigners, these pagan Gentiles.  

 It reminds us that Jesus is the hope of all people.  We all long for peace and love and something or someone to give us a sense of purpose in life.  Now there has always been an element of invitation in God’s revelation.  Israel was to be a light to the Gentiles.  But the surprise that Paul points out in our first lesson from Ephesians, is that the Gentiles have an equal place in God’s family.  They are adopted into God’s household, and in the first century Roman customs of adoption, that means they are equal to the “biological” children.  Many Jews thought that, at best, the righteous Gentiles would become their slaves in the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom.  But that is not God’s message.  We all become one family through faith in Christ.

 Now specifically these Gentile visitors are “magi,” astrologers.  They look at the stars, trying to foresee a message from God in the heavens.  At this time, most people believed the heavens were unchanging.  Today we understand that stars are born and die, and that comets and other astronomical phenomena happen all the time.  But in the ancient world, they thought the heavens were constant, so any change in them must be a sign from God.  

 In all likelihood, these magi came from either Babylon or Persia, two ancient lands renowned for their astrology.  They are also lands where the Hebrew people spent time in exile, so they would have exposure to the Scriptures and ideas of the Hebrews.  There is a theory that the magi were a particular tribe of “seers” from the people called the Medes, who became part of the Persian Empire.  

 Something that’s interesting here is that they are led to Jesus through astrology.  Now, of course, astrology is forbidden in Scripture.  God’s people are supposed to pray to him, not consult the stars.  Nonetheless, that’s what brings them to Jesus.  God is gracious.  God uses things, even things like astrology, to bring people to himself.  But of course, astrology leads them to Jesus.  Astrology itself was not their salvation; it only brought them to one who could save them.  

 These magi come to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the one born king of the Jews?  We have seen his star rising.”  One of the objects of curiosity in this story is this star.  What did they see?  Many theories have been proposed.  Some have suggested a supernova, the explosion of a dying star.  Also, about this time, there was a “convergence” of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, which would be very bright.  There are also records of the star Sirius appearing especially bright during this time.  Sirius is already the brightest star in the sky, so if it became brighter, it would be very noticeable.  And the star Sirius was often connected with the birth of royalty.  Another possibility is Halley’s Comet, which was also made a pass during this time period.  Though scholars point out that comets were more associated with the death of a ruler than the birth of one.  In short, we don’t know, and we probably never will.  Not that we need to, either.  But it is interesting that not just in Israel, but in several ancient societies about this time, there were prophecies about the birth of a great king.  

 Well, the magi may have been excited, but King Herod was not.  He was disturbed.  At this time Herod ruled the territories of Galilee, Samaria, Judea, and Idumea, which together basically made up the whole territory of Old Testament Israel.  And he was not an especially nice king.  So people would be worried if he was disturbed.  Why would the visit of these magi bother him? 

 For starters, these magi came from the Parthian Empire, which included Babylon and Persia at this time.  Parthia was the only challenger to Rome for control of the ancient Near East world.  And Herod was a vassal of Rome.  So he’d be worried about the enemies of his emperor coming with a message about the birth of a new king.  Especially when the most common perception of Messiah is that he would be a great conquering warrior king.  

 Also, the Messiah was a descendant of David, and the Old Testament said a descendant of David would always sit on the throne of Jerusalem.  Herod was not a descendant of David, so he would be upset about the birth of “rightful heir.”  

 Herod also had a just general disdain for religion and all things religious.  He may have been the one who rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple, but he also rebuilt many pagan shrines in the Gentile parts of his kingdom.  You see, he viewed religion from a very worldly perspective.  Religion was a way to control people, not a real thing.  And if that religion threatened his hold on power, then it was a religion to be opposed and destroyed.  The only good religion to Herod was one he could use.  

 So he wants to put an end to Jesus.  He consults with the religious leaders to find out where this Messiah is supposed to be born.  Then he sends the magi to find him and bring him back word of his whereabouts.  

 The magi find Jesus and present him with gifts.  Each gift has an appropriate meaning.  Gold was fit for royalty.  Frankincense was burned in temples, so it was fit for deity.  And myrrh was an embalming spice, fit for burial.  Each was appropriate for Jesus, the King, the Son of God, and the one who would die for the sins of the world.

 God tells the magi to go home a different way.  Often an encounter with Christ changes the course of our lives.

 But of all the interesting questions is this story, the most interesting one to me is:  Why didn’t the religious leaders in Jerusalem go to see this Messiah?  

 Maybe they couldn’t believe that God would reveal something like this to the magi and not to them.  After all, the magi are pagans.  They are the people of God.  So maybe they rejected the whole idea because they didn’t like where it came from.

 Maybe they were afraid of Herod.  We know they thought about the political implications of their decisions.  That was part of their reason to oppose Jesus thirty-some years later.  Faithfulness to God often brings persecution from “the world.”  

 Or maybe they were just more interested in knowing about God than knowing God.  Maybe they were content to know the Scriptures and know all about God, rather than going to meet him face to face.  

 If so, then we should be glad that the magi remind us that the proper response to God is to seek him with all our heart, fall before him in worship and praise, and then give him the very best that we can.  

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