Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. The “wise men”, as we’ve come to call them, have become such an integral part of the Christmas story in our world, but I wonder how well we actually know the biblical story which records the visit of these Magi in Matthew 2. There are a number of assumptions we’ve made in 21st century Christianity about this story that the biblical text just doesn’t say. For example, did you know that “Magi” actually doesn’t mean “wise man”? In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, a distinction is actually made between “wise men” and “magi” in Daniel chapter 2. Magi certainly possessed worldly wisdom in a sense, but if Matthew wanted his readers to focus on the wisdom of these men, he could have used a different title for them.
But he calls them “Magi”, so I’ll try to do my best to do the same. But also, did you notice how Matthew never says that there were 3 Magi? They brought 3 gifts for Jesus, but the number of the Magi is never given. Here’s one more assumption that you might not have realized…did you notice how Matthew never says that the Magi followed the star to Jerusalem? He simply says that the Magi saw the star, then went to Jerusalem. It’s not until they leave Jerusalem heading for Bethlehem that the Lord causes the star to reappear and lead them to where Jesus was, which, who knows, might not have even been in Bethlehem at this point in time… See, Matthew just doesn’t give us as many details as we might like. This story of the Magi has become such an integral part of the Christmas story in our world, but I wonder how well we actually know the biblical story. Let’s take a few moments to examine this story a bit closer to see what the Lord might have us learn from it.
2. Our text begins: Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magi 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.” (Matthew 2:1-2). Now, let me ask you a question that you might not have considered before: How might a first century reader of Matthew’s gospel respond to this statement? How might they feel about Matthew saying, “Look, Magi from the east showed up in Jerusalem looking for a new-born king”? On one level, that’s an impossible question to answer. But at the same time, it’s a question worth pondering. I would argue that first century readers of Matthew’s gospel would be a bit puzzled at the appearance of Magi. I mentioned earlier that there’s a distinction in biblical thought between “wise men” and “magi.” That’s because, in the words of one biblical commentator: In the patristic and medieval periods [that is, in the early days of the Church’s history], the magi’s learning [or wisdom] was often simply ignored…When their learning was addressed, however, it was universally denounced. Their so-called science or art was regarded as false knowledge, even as a false religion. It did not aid them in coming to the Christ but rather was rejected after they came to the Christ. And so, you can understand why the original audience of Matthew’s gospel would have been confused by the appearance of Magi. These men who were so profoundly ignorant of the ways of God because of their obsession with their own knowledge…these profoundly ignorant men are some of the first people whom the Lord chooses to enlighten with the message of his son’s birth. It’s incredible, really.
3. Now, here’s where it gets more incredible. Matthew continues: 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 Magi 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” (Matthew 2:3-8). Here in these verses, we continue to see the themes of human ignorance and divine revelation playing out. Herod the king doesn’t have a clue about this new king’s birth—he has to be told by foreigners. Yet, these foreigners who knew about the king’s birth don’t have the first clue of where to begin looking for him. They show up in Jerusalem asking for directions (which, you can ask any man to verify this—asking for directions is something men only do when we’re really lost!). And so, you have this meeting of human ignorance going on in Jerusalem. Herod’s men finally figure out where the new king is supposed to be born: Bethlehem. So, Herod sends the Magi with instructions to report back to him when they find the child. And so, on the surface of the narrative, the powerful King Herod seems to be in charge. But as we know, even the supposed wisdom of King Herod will be revealed to be nothing but ignorance compared to the God of the universe who is ultimately in control.
4. Our reading concludes: 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 2:9-12). So, the one who’s ultimately in charge—the Lord—wins the day. He enlightens the ignorant Magi and leads them to worship Jesus. And that’s the only way it works: The Lord enlightens the ignorant through the revelation of His Son. See, we might think that we’re not ignorant. We might think that we’re full of wisdom and knowledge, but like we saw in the Magi, our worldly wisdom is profound ignorance before God. This is why the Scriptures constantly warn again becoming “wise in your own eyes.” Any why would the Scriptures have to warn us against this? Well, because it’s our sinful human tendency to trust in our own abilities. But I think that the entire year of 2020 was a great reminder of how frail we are as humans and how incapably ignorant we really are. But this is precisely why the message of Epiphany is so beautiful: The Lord enlightens the ignorant through the revelation of His Son. Through his Word, Jesus forgives you of your sins and strengthens you for life by His Spirit. Through his Word, Jesus guides you to reject your own wisdom and to fear, love, and trust in God above all things, much like he did for those Magi at the first Epiphany. I’ll conclude with the words that we’ll sing together in our closing hymn:
Grant us grace to see, Thee, Lord,
Present in Thy holy Word—
Grace to imitate Thee now
And be pure, as pure art Thou;
That we might become like Thee
At Thy great epiphany
And may praise Thee, ever blest,
God in man made manifest.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.