Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-12 ESV)
The arrival of the Magi to see the ‘King of the Jews’ is bundled into Christmas Eve and a queue at the stable door that we often miss two things. Firstly, that Jesus is a child now rather than a baby who is found in a house in Bethlehem (though in what context we have no idea). Secondly, that the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem is a bombshell – mainly for those with power and privilege – because change is coming and they will lose out. And no one really likes to lose – not when it’s important and when the loss is significant about such things as power, status, or wealth.
We all plan as best we can – and no one ever plans divorce or bankruptcy or being lynched by a mob. What we do is put things in place to minimise disasters which can be oppressive in themselves especially when they are designed to keep me safe, powerful, wealthy, and in control. This can happen in personal relationships and in work places with hierarchies, in remote places and right at the centre of capital cities – it is not confined to history, such happens now. If someone comes along and threatens one’s status, then that is a threat you don’t ignore.
Imagine being King Herod the Great and you are not a Jew yourself but an Idumean (from father) and Nabatean (from mother) – that is, you are ethnically an Arab but you live among Jews and are raised as a Jew and you are King because your father was on good terms with Julius Caesar and you have cultivated – schmoozed – good relations with Rome and secured and expanded the position for yourself. Now imagine Magi come from the east – foreigners – following a star and wanting to see the newly born ‘King of the Jews’. Imagine how you might feel! Power over others is exercised as long as others allow and you’re always vulnerable to the person or group who says, ‘No’. If your security is power, you’re always insecure! ‘When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all of Jerusalem with him’ (Matthew 2:3) and so they want details of the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed. Just the very announcement of Jesus’ birth is destabilising to those who don’t want someone more powerful around.
We leave Herod to his wicked response and follow on with the Magi who do find Jesus in a house in Bethlehem and they bow down, prostrate themselves, and that certainly is the body language for an aspect of worship and offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We have no mention of the quantities and so we generally reflect on their symbolism – that they are acknowledging Jesus as King, as Priest, but myrrh is tricky because it is often associated with embalming and death. But because we know what happened to Jesus – and because we remember what Simeon said to Mary in the temple when handing Jesus back to her, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34,35 ESV) we add it to the strangeness, scandal, and even death which seem to be hovering around this child in ways that should make us uneasy.
Why are Gentiles worshipping ‘the King of the Jews’? Surely worship is really for the divine? And we have no words, liturgies, or songs to go by except the act itself – and the Greek word here can be worship and reverence and honour and perhaps we can say that they are all here in the house before the child with his mother.
But we know that something isn’t right when you worship the wrong thing. And for all the big headedness we can have, I’m guessing, that if someone genuinely tried to worship us, we’d be uneasy and ask them to go away. When John up in the heavenly realm in Revelation bowed before an angel – twice, you’d think he’d have learnt the first time! – he was rebuked. And Jesus himself said to the Devil that we are to worship God alone. And yet not once did Jesus ever refuse someone’s prostration or praise as he never seemed uncomfortable with linking himself closely to God or rejecting the cry of demons who knew his identity (‘Son of the Most High God’ Mark 5:7) and when arrested, he was blunt to the religious leaders saying that he expected their worship when he was “seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62 ESV).
What we have with the arrival of the Magi is the beginnings of the global importance of Jesus and the challenge he causes by his mere existence on Earth to any other power here.
It is interesting that the next person to say ‘King of the Jews’ is Pontius Pilate in his questioning of Jesus. Pilate and Caiaphas cannot conceive how Jesus ‘fits’ into the real world and are representatives – Gentile and Jew – of humanity’s incomprehension that God with all his power would not use it to control or simply zap us but in weakness comes to serve us by dying and rescuing us from the mess we have made of the world.
I think that the biggest problem today of the Christian Church is its desire to cling to and exercise power in the affairs of the world and not trust the tools it has been given – words, water, bread and wine with which to serve in Jesus’ name through speaking Law and Gospel – always lovingly – and through lives of service and mercy where we live among the people with whom we live. God gives us the scope for our action whether that be our own home, our neighbourhood, our places of work or play, our county, our country, or the globe.
The arrival of the Magi should give Christians pause as to why so many people still push Jesus away or won’t step into a church or even pray – though who knows the reality there? – and that to the world, Jesus with all his power, who says, ‘Follow me’ and means it – it’s not an optional extra in life – is a message that is unnerving and fearful. Jesus challenges our very identity when we want to do what we want. Can Jesus be trusted to do right by us and not use his power to abuse us, mock us, ruin us?
The answer depends on who people really think Jesus is – and because his Church, his followers are never perfect but hopefully always struggling to be more merciful, kind, forgiving, and just each day – the focus must always be on Jesus. And who Jesus is on this occasion is hinted at by gold, frankincense, and myrrh – our King, our Great High Priest, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
This Jesus is different than we could ever imagine – a God who serves – and who calls us to serve and always use the world’s things everyone craves – power and wealth in particular – to actually serve others rather than ourselves. Living with Jesus is different than we expect.
- Matthew 2:16 - 12