December 10, 2015

Travelling Towards Christmas - 4. Magi


Travelling Towards Christmas

4. Wise Men on a Journey

Greetings! This is Jim Harris with the 4th meditation on the Christmas story. I’ve called the series ‘Travelling Towards Christmas’ and we’re now going to think about the Magi, or wise men as they are popularly known. You might find it helpful now to read Matthew 2:1-18.

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi  from the east came to Jerusalem 2 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."

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 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. 5 "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:

6 " '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.' "

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 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."

9 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. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

13 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."

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 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."

16 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. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 "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."

Travelling Towards Christmas? Yes, that’s what these men were doing, and probably for quite a long time, for it seems they originated in what we now call Iran but used to call Persia. The Magi were sort of priestly group - not kings, as is usually supposed in traditional Christmas presentations. They were men who studied the night skies for signs of what was going to happen. We would label them astrologers today but they were more than that.

They were aware of ancient writings and promises that had been made long before they were born, and looked to see where and when they would be fulfilled. Those who visited Jesus had seen a clear sign that an ancient promise was shortly coming to pass.

There is a verse in the Old Testament, Numbers 24:17 which reads, ‘A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel.’ No wonder, then, that they burst into Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, with the question, ‘Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We’ve seen his star. . we’ve come to worship him.’

With a bit of help from the Jewish scholars, the star took them to Bethlehem, where they found the young child with his mother. They brought gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. These three gifts may have suggested that there were just three of them in the party, but Matthew gives us no data on that.

Gold; frankincense and myrrh.

  • Gold, a gift fit for a king. 
  • Incense, a gift appropriate for a priest; still used today in some churches. 
  • Myrrh, a gift suggesting sacrifice and death, for it was an embalming spice.

What other insights did they have, we wonder, as they travelled and talked among themselves. Matthew understood that they were significant to the story of Jesus birth, not just because they came, but because they were part of God’s strategy for Jesus. Those gifts were valuable, extremely so, and their value would have provided the means for the Holy Family to escape into Egypt and remain there for as long as it was necessary.

This thought is strengthened by the fact that it was the Magi’s visit that provoked Herod’s wrath and his vicious massacre of the young boys of Bethlehem.

There is something unexplained and mysterious about this visit of the Magi but, whatever else may be true, it makes the point for us that Jesus coming into the world was not only to save his people – that is the Jewish people – from their sins.

Far from it; he was coming to be the Saviour of the world. His life, death and resurrection would establish salvation for all who would believe and receive it, regardless of race, colour, creed, culture, or social status.

In emphasising the nature of the gifts they brought, we may overlook that, first of all, ‘they bowed down and worshipped him.’ They realised to some extent, that he was more than just another earthly king; that, somehow, he was destined to be of wider and greater significance than that. The apostle John was later to write of him as ‘The Word of God’ and penned the words, ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’

Perhaps these Magi were Wise Men after all, in that they partly understood what we’ve come to call incarnation – God on earth as a real human being!

It’s been fashionable in recent years to create some clever slogans about Christmas, such as, ‘Jesus is the reason for the season.’ To my mind one of the more subtle and telling of these says, ‘Wise men still seek Him!’ Living in an age of political correctness, we have to change it a little, but it loses some of its force when we do so. However, so that no-one feels left out, let’s say that, ‘Wise people still seek Him!’

A question for you to think about. ‘What gift could you bring to the Lord Jesus this Christmas that would express your love for him?’

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