Lessons from the Nativity: 8: Open for the Weird?
Matt 2:1,2 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 in the east and have come to worship him.”
There is going to be what in effect will be a second part to this meditation but we’ll have to wait a bit for that. For the moment I want to focus on a particular feature of the Nativity story, the coming of the kings or wise men, call them what you will, and I would just like to observe how we so happily have these men in our Nativity and yet there is something seriously weird about them, something so weird that we would probably not countenance it in any other circumstance.
First of all let’s just note the uncertainty of just who these men were, and indeed for that matter how many of them there were. Our verses above speak of them as Magi but your Bible probably has a footnote saying “traditionally Wise Men”. They are men who have travelled from the east, probably in the direction of Babylonia, historically the land of the Medes and the Persians, and some say they came from the Medes who had a priestly cast who become known for their study of astrology and religion, while others suggest they came from the Persians. The truth is that we do not know.
They came bearing gifts, which we will consider at a later date, but for the moment we will note that the traditional idea that there were three of them comes from the fact that three gifts are mentioned. It is the value of the gifts that has caused some to suggest they were kings, although there is no documentary evidence at all to confirm that.
But note that they come saying, “We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.” Yes, these were more that astronomers (those who observe the stars in the sky); they must have been astrologers (those to put meaning to the position of stars to foretell the future.) Now astrologers have got to be in the same category as ‘seers’ and not far off being related to ‘mediums’, all in the business of speaking about the future, and yet we know that mediums were expressly spoken against in the Law of Moses (see Lev 19:31. 20:6.27, Deut 18:10-12) and Isaiah had prophesied, “When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.” (Isa 8:19,20). Now some might say that seeking the future is not the same as consulting the dead, but there is a very close connection and so we find that this practice of astrology would have been strictly banned in Israel, yet here come these prominent figures in the Nativity story that we accept so happily!
Somehow or other these men from the east have managed to come up with a conclusion that somewhere out there a great king is about to be born and this ‘star’ in the sky is leading to him. So certain were they about this, and so significant would this king be, one greater than all others, that he would be worthy of their worship, that they (almost certainly) formed a camel train and set out and trekked hundred of miles to find him. It is clear from later on in the story that they did not know their destination but just kept on until some further sign appeared to show them where it was. In the event, they stopped at Jerusalem and enquired there and were told Bethlehem was likely to be the place. How they decided that the star had stopped over Bethlehem is unclear, but this they decide and somehow manage to find where Mary and Joseph are with their baby. It is a strange story with lots of unanswered questions. It is definitely weird but we accept it without question every Christmas. What does it say to us?
I would suggest that it says that God can be in all manner of things that perhaps we don’t have a clue about. We’ve noted previously that for Mary and Joseph the working out of the will of God was almost certainly confusing and certainly inconvenient. We might want to blame Satan for stirring up Caesar Augustus into making a decree that might put Mary’s life at threat, but the prophecies about Bethlehem bring it all back under the will of God saying, at the very least, that God knew it was going to happen and He would use it to link His Son from heaven with the history of David, the man after God’s own heart.
In the Old Testament we see the Lord speaks through His word to Cyrus a pagan ruler to allow God’s people to return to Jerusalem after the Exile. He had previously spoken forcibly to Nebuchadnezzar about his pride. The Lord does have dealings with unbelievers. Let’s face it, Abram probably came from the same area as these ‘wise men’ and when he had originally set out from his home it had been at his father’s instigation and only later did he receive the call to go with God. God called him as a pagan.
God called you while you were still an unbeliever. God speaks with unbelievers – even astrologers. Perhaps that is the lesson here: God calls unbelievers and draws us into His purposes. Some unbelievers respond and become Christians, others refuse to heed the call and remain unbelievers, but the fact of the matter is that we all start out as unbelievers, and still God calls us. We’ve seen Him call the dregs of society out on the hillside and now we’ve seen Him call those who believe in the weird and the wonderful that is clearly deception – even though on this unique occasion God was behind it. We’ll see the wonder of the outcome of this call to these astrologers later.