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Dec 26 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

December 26, 2021



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.” . . . 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 goy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then opening their treasures, the 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

Intro: Reading this old familiar story,

I am surprised by how little information we are actually given
– Matthew provides us bare details without embellishment
• we are not the first to recognize its streamlined quality
• over time, various storytellers added their own finishing touch
◦ it’s like an undecorated Christmas tree that looks too plain
◦ so tradition has added lots of ornaments
– for instance, we’ve been told there were three magi (the Bible does not say how many)
• some storytellers went so far as to give them names
◦ we imagine the magi came with a caravan of camels, voila! we have camels
◦ the magi are pictured in nativity scenes, though they arrived much later
• these decorations do not change the story,
◦ they are a poetic attempt to make it more visual

Three weeks ago, I told you these talks would not be profound
– that they would be more like meditations or reflections
• so today I will share some of my thoughts regarding the magi
• I chose them intentionally, because, as Matthew tells us,
◦ they arrived after Jesus was born in Bethlehem
◦ so this is a post-Christmas talk about the post-Christmas visit of the magi

My first thought: These Christmas guests lived worlds apart from shepherds

The shepherds were home-grown
– shepherding had deep roots in Israel’s history: both Jacob and Moses at one time were shepherds
• of course, the shepherd par excellence was David–also from Bethlehem
• it seems right that the first to hear of Jesus’ birth would be shepherds
the magi were foreigners
• the Greeks used “magi” to refer to Persian priests (in the service of kings)
◦ they access to supernatural knowledge for divination dream interpretation
◦ magi is also used of Babylonian astrologers
• the magi not merely foreigners, but they represented nations that had conquered Israel
◦ nations where the Jewish people had been held in exile

The shepherds belonged to the lowest class in Israel
Bruce Malina, “Although shepherds could be romanticized (as was King David), they were usually ranked with . . . tanners, sailors, butchers, camel drivers, and other despised occupations. Being away from home at night they were unable to protect their women and therefore were considered dishonorable. In addition, they often were considered thieves because they grazed their flocks on other people’s property.”
magi, however, were a privileged class and honored as such
• they arrived in Jerusalem asking for directions,
◦ and were soon granted an audience with the king
• they had the world at their feet, whereas,
◦ shepherds were at the feet of the world

The shepherds received the announcement of Jesus’ birth from angels
– the magi were given a star
– both images are related to the heavens
• but they suggest very different connotations

Matthew and Luke tell two different stories
– each has to do with the message they intend to emphasize
• Matthew features the kingdom of heaven
◦ so he tells an episode that gives Jesus royal status
◦ note that the angel addresses Joseph as “son of [King] David” (Mt. 1:20)
• Luke’s concern is to present Jesus as liberator (Lk. 4:18-21)
◦ the champion of the poor, oppressed, and outcasts
– so Matthew and Luke chose the stories that best fit their purpose
• in comparing the two, I think it’s significant that
◦ the shepherds got to Jesus first – the magi arrived quite awhile later

Another thought: The magi are radically out of place in Jerusalem and Bethlehem

They were not descendants of Abraham and did not belong to the “chosen people”
– they were not Israelites – they had their own nationality
• when they left Bethlehem, they returned to their own country (v. 12)
• yet, seeing the star over Judea, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy
– then, when they saw Jesus, they fell down and worshiped him
• they bow before this two-year-old – WHY?
• he was not their king nor was he a world emperor
◦ what stake do they have in him?
◦ what the heck are they doing here?

Matthew is very careful to point out the fulfillment of scripture in the person of Jesus
– especially in the first few chapters
(e.g., verse 15, This was to fulfill what the Lord has spoken by the prophet . . .)
• but he does not provide a biblical equivalent for the magi
– perhaps he just wants to show us how big this event was
• much bigger than tiny Bethlehem
◦ bigger even than King Herod or all of Judah
• maybe he wants us to see that Jesus’ coming into the world deserves this kind of attention
◦ to get a perspective on how big the birth of Jesus was, consider this:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us)
– Mt. 1:23-24

Another thought: What do we see in the faces around Christ child?

We see the disheveled poor and the manicured wealthy
– we see the very devout–like Simeon and Anna–
• and others who have known only foreign gods
– we see people with citizenship status
• and aliens who have crossed borders to see Jesus
– we see a multicultural mix of races and religions

None of these people were drawn to Jesus against their will
– they came to him, because whatever they had, it was not enough
• they came because their faith was cold and Jesus was fire
• they came because they were thirsty and Jesus is the fountain of living water
• they came because their religion was weak and Jesus is God with us
– they came to Jesus and he opened his arms to them

This is what the kingdom of God looks like
– though you have Jesus, you do not have him exclusively

When we come to Jesus, we’re recruited into kingdom of God
– where there is neither left nor right, resident or alien
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for your are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:27-28)
– I fear for some Christians who assume their spot in heaven is guaranteed
• I am afraid that either they will not like heaven when they get there,
◦ because they will see all the people they’ve tried to keep out of their church, their country clubs, their nation
◦ or they will find themselves on the outside looking in
• this has happened to others who felt entitled to access to God’s kingdom
In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God (Lk. 13:28-29)

Conclusion: Before we put the magi back in their box until Christmas next year

I have one other thought
– our last look at the magi is when we watch them leave Bethlehem, and
they departed to their own country by another way
– I know Matthew meant they took a different route
• but I want to take liberties with that statement, by another way
• for instance, they were led to Bethlehem by a star, but led back home by a dream
– they left by another way, not only because of Herod, but also because of Jesus
• they came one way, but left another way
◦ they came the old way they had always been and left a new way of being in God
• when they got home, their country was the same, but they were not the same
This is how we know we have encountered Jesus,
when we leave another way; when we become a different person

Henri Nouwen, left his prosperous professions to work with adults with developmental disabilities
– he spent a year in preparation for this work, during which time he kept a journal
• then he set the journal aside after his first year working at Daybreak
• at that time he wrote and epilogue to his journal, which was then published
– I want to conclude this talk with quotes from his epilogue

“If, indeed, Jesus is the center of my life, I have to give him much time and attention. I especially want to pray the prayer of adoration in which I focus on his love, his compassion, and his mercy and not on my needs, my problems and my desires. . . . I want my life to be based on the reality of Jesus, and not on the unreality of my own fantasies, self-complaints, daydreams, and sand castles.”

“It is becoming increasingly clear to me that Jesus led me to where I never wanted to go, sustained me when I felt lost in the darkness of the night, and will guide me toward the day no longer followed by night. As I travel with Jesus, he continues to remind me that God’s heart is, indeed infinitely greater than my own.”

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