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Wise men

1st January 2016

Matthew 2v1-12
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 when it rose 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 Messiah 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 shepherd 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 search carefully 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 when it rose 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, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Some Bibles translate the word "magi” as "wise men”. How wise were they? Suppose you were one of them. Suppose you lived 2,000 years ago in "the east”, wherever that is, and you saw a star. Would you think it heralded a new King in Judea? Why would you? Maybe because you'd have been an educated man. In those days, a good education included astrology. You would have seen a star you didn't recognise, and wondered why it was there. You'd have looked in the holy books, including the Old Testament, and found many prophesies about the Messiah, and you'd have realised he was coming soon. You'd have found Numbers 24:17a, "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel.

Education is a wonderful thing. Of course, Astrology is a load of old hooey but, because they studied, at least they recognised a new star. Embedded in the nonsense of astrology is the science of astronomy. God was willing to use their very imperfect understanding to lead them to Jesus.

So suppose you were a Magus – an educated man, versed in logic, rhetoric, religion, astrology and magic, which is why you were called a Magus, from which we get the word "magician”. And suppose you saw the new star, and understood Numbers 24. Would you ride hundreds of miles across the desert to see the new king?

These men were educated, but their education contained a lot of falsehood as well as a lot of truth. A bit like British Universities today, really. They believed what they were taught in school, as most of us do, without separating the truth from the fiction. But they had some wisdom. They were wise enough to act in accordance with their beliefs. They left their homes, and went to worship the new-born king. Would we?

They thought that if a new king had been born, he must be in the capital city – Jerusalem. So that's where they went. And when they arrived, they started asking around, "Where's the new-born king? We saw his star when it rose.” They expected the Jews there to be as excited about Jesus as they were.

But when the old king, Herod the Great, heard about this, he was not thrilled. Like most politicians, he wanted to stay in power for as long as possible. Like most politicians, he wanted to prevent his rivals taking over. He'd already killed some of his own family because they seemed to threaten his position.

And if a politician is disturbed by a threat to his power, then the whole city's going to be disturbed as well. Like all ruling elites, Herod and his cronies would have done whatever it takes to discredit the threat, or eliminate it some other way. For Herod, murder would do.

Herod sent for his political advisors, the Jewish chief priests and scribes, to find out where this upstart was living, so he could deal with him. When they told him that the Old Testament had predicted, centuries ago, that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, Herod encouraged the Magi to go there and find the new king, and then come back and tell him about it. He said he wanted to worship Jesus, too. Yeah, right.

The Magi weren't all that wise; they believed Herod when he said he just wanted to worship the baby who would replace him as king. They started on the six-mile journey south to Bethlehem, and the star that they'd seen at home re-appeared to them. They were overjoyed to see it again. They'd made a mistake, assuming Jesus would be in Jerusalem, but God hadn't given up on them. He was still willing to lead them to Jesus. Have you made some mistakes in your search for Jesus? God is big enough to deal with it.

When the Magi arrived in Bethlehem, the star stopped over the place where the child was. How did that work? We don't know. But if we take the Bible seriously, then the star was low enough that the Magi could work out which house it was over. It can't have been more than a few feet above the roof. And that proves the star was a miracle. It was no ordinary star, which is why skilled astrologers took notice of it. God's grace had led the Magi to Jesus.

The first people to worship Jesus, other than his parents, were Jewish shepherds, who visited him on the night he was born. The second group of people to worship Jesus were the elderly Simeon and Anna, deeply religious Jews, who saw him when he was presented in the temple when he was forty days old. The third group were these Gentile astrologers, who rode across the desert Bethlehem to see him soon after. This shows us that Jesus came for us all: religious and non-religious; urban and rural; educated and uneducated; young and old; Jews, Persians, Babylonians, Arabs and English - everybody.

The shepherds, Simeon and Anna, and the Magi, were very different sorts of people. But God could communicate with them all, God could lead them all to Jesus. And they were all wise enough to worship the King.

The Magi bowed down and worshipped him. They knew he wasn't just any king. He was the Messiah – he was God. We don't worship ordinary kings or religious leaders. We only worship God. Don't you love it that foreign astrologers knew who Jesus was long before the most of the Jewish religious experts worked it out?

And then – after they worshipped Him – they gave Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It was the 3rd century Greek theologian Origen who first suggested "Gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to God”. And all three presents were expensive, as befits a gift to God. Are we generous in our worship of God?

The Magi were going to go back to Jerusalem to tell Herod what they'd seen, but God warned them not to, in a dream. They went home, amazed at what had happened.

This was the most wonderful thing they'd ever done. Jesus was the most wonderful person they'd ever seen. The journey from their previous life to worship the King of Kings had been so worthwhile, for them and for us.

And we remember them, the first Gentiles to worship Christ. They were willing to go beyond their education, beyond their understanding, through the desert, into a new country, to be interrogated by a murderous king, to trust a God-given star to lead them, to kneel before Jesus and worship, and give Him their most prized possessions, because He's Emmanuel – God with us.