9. Not our People

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 9. Not our People

Reading 8: Matthew 2:1–12

Matthew 2:1,2  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.”

Context: The leader-heading for these verses reads, “The wise men are led by star to Jesus”. That is nice and simple, but I wonder how many of us ever stop and wonder why these ‘wise men’ or Magi turned up within a couple of months of Jesus’ birth while they are still at Bethlehem?  And even more when we consider the overall intention of these readings – “the development of the loving purposes of God” – and that seen in the light of the big picture concerning the failure of mankind, and God’s plan to redeem us, how does this little episode fit in all that?

The Reading: Jesus has been born in Bethlehem in the days of King Herod (v.1) and these Magi or wise men arrive in Jerusalem enquiring where the newly born king of the Jews is, that their star had led them to (v.2). Herod is clueless (v.3) but, assuming this refers to the long-awaited Messiah, he asks the religious leaders what indications there are of where he would be born (v.4). No problem Micah said it would be Bethlehem (v.5,6). Herod enquires of the Magi and sends them to Bethlehem to check it out and return and tell him (v.7,8). This they do, continuing to follow their star, and there they find Jesus now residing temporarily (presumably) in a house with his parents, (v.9,10) and they bow and worship him and present him with costly gifts (v.10,11) and then, being warned against Herod in a dream, they leave for home avoiding Jerusalem (v.12). An amazing story.

Lessons: Again an historical narrative that we must let speak to us, but it is a narrative that is full of question marks – and we’re not given answers. Who really were these men? Were there just three of them – we assume that because of three gifts? How had they really been led here to Israel? What was this star and how did it seem to be so specifically over the place where they were? Why did they leave them with these gifts? What did the little family do with them? To where did these ‘wise men’ return?

Mystery does not mean blind faith: Confronting these questions – and lack of answers (we may speculate but that is all it will be) the sceptic might say, ‘See, so much of this Christian faith stuff is blind faith!’ Well, no, blind faith suggests you can see nothing. This story says some unknown men turned up with presents, partly guided by prophetic scriptures. It happened, no problem and it was wonderful. The Bible doesn’t give us every answer to the questions we have but it gives sufficient answers to establish a well-founded faith. There IS so much here that does not have questions over it.

Guidance may come in a variety of ways: In these few verses there are three forms of guidance given. First there is the star over which still hangs a mystery, but what we can say is that somehow these men had an inner certainty that it was leading them – and they homed in on the right destination. Where did that certainty come form? May I suggest God.  Second, there were the prophetic scriptures, the word of God, and again God may speak in a variety of ways to us through His word. Third, there was a dream and the Bible indicates this is not an unusual way He communicates.

Believers may not be “our kind of people”. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were very picky about how people should behave and if they didn’t conform, they were looked down on by these religious snobs. These ‘wise men’ were not Jews and I am sure there would have been some mumbling behind closed doors about them and the collective wisdom was probably, “Well they are not our people but they seem to have some kind of mystic guidance. Let them go and see where it sends them and then we can decide what to do about it.”  I cited the other day how some of the British Royal family didn’t take to Billy Graham when he first arrived in the 1950’s.  I’m sure there would have been some more conservative elements of the Church in the USA who was not happy about the Jesus Movement back near the end of the last century, others unhappy about John Wimber, others unhappy about ‘leaders’ of the ‘charismatic movement’ and even more about the goings on of the ‘Toronto Blessing’. And so it goes on through the Christian world; we keep getting confronted by those who are not ‘our people’. The trouble is that God doesn’t seem to have the same social (or spiritual) boundaries that we have!

A God of Provision:  Those gifts. They were expensive but they were the currency of the day across borders. Today we have to exchange currency. Then they had expensive products that could be sold for the local currency. That’s what these gifts were. They were God’s method of providing for the material needs of this little family. No doubt Joseph, as a carpenter, found local jobs to do to earn money but, although they don’t know it yet, they are going to have to flee to Egypt, and that means, if it was us, we’d go to the bank and get out some foreign currency, but the Wise Men were their ‘bank’. Wonderful! Now you couldn’t have seen that coming! And that’s what it is like so often when God provides:  it comes but you could never have guessed it was coming or rather from where it was going to come. Wonderful, but faith-stretching sometimes!

It is an amazing part of this story. Yes, it may have question marks over it, but the lessons ring out loud and clear for anyone who has ears to hear. May that be you and me.

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10. Anticipation – the Magi

Focus on Christ Meditations: 10.  Anticipation – the Magi

Mt 2:1,2   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.”

As I have started into this series, and slightly to my surprise, I have found my focus being directed to the mystery of the coming of Jesus Christ. We saw just a few examples of that in the prophecies of the Old Testament and as we come into the New, the more I think about it, the more I realise that there are major question marks, or even an air of mystery, over some of the things we so often take for granted in this story. And that is my biggest concern: that because the Nativity story has become so familiar to many of us, we lose the significance or mystery of what was going on.

To recap a little bit, if you had been around Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth (and of course you would probably know nothing of his birth) you might have noticed this old man, probably thought of as a bit of an eccentric by many, who saw him hobble in (he’s an old man!!) each day and just sit around the temple courts. We would probably have written him off as an old man with nothing better to do than just sit and watch the crowds. Yes, there had also been that freaky prophetess, Anna, a long-term widow who was also there daily, praying and prophesying and obviously fasting most of the time (no doubt, thin as a rake, we might say today).

Oh yes, the temple attracted the weirdoes, but that is all they are. And then we had the story of the shepherds. Well that was a bit farfetched, we might have thought if we had heard it third hand, a bit weird to say the least. But nothing has changed; life carries on as normal. If these characters were God’s PR people, there to spread the word, He might have chosen more credible people, and a lot more people for all that. So this couple with a baby came to the temple and went again and rumour has it that they have settled temporarily down there in Bethlehem. Life carries on in the Temple and in the local synagogues, focusing on Israel’s past, with the scrolls being brought out and read every Saturday. Life carries on as normal.

And then a camel train turns up in Jerusalem. Traders it might appear from the east. But no, these aren’t just ordinary traders, they appear philosophers, or astronomers or even astrologers; they are a bit weird. And they start asking around, 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.”  What? This is odd on various levels. A child-king has been born? Has Herod being keeping something to himself? But no, he seems as surprised as the rest of us. But then everyone jumps to a major conclusion: “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 Christ was to be born.” (v.3,4) If there is an unheralded ‘Coming One’ is this the one our teachers have been identifying in the scrolls all these years, the Messiah or Christ?

The second strange thing about this is that claim to have been led here by a star in the sky? What? A star or a meteorite? Did they use other things to confirm this because they certainly believe what they are saying because they wouldn’t have clearly traveled hundreds of miles to get here if they didn’t!  But then there is a third strange thing about this. They are talking about wanting to worship this child. Look, we don’t worship Herod and as good Jews we don’t ‘worship’ anyone other than God, the I AM of Moses’ day. So what are you saying? In the eyes of these strange men, is this child a ‘god’ like the Romans have or the Greeks had? Surely not in Jerusalem of all places???? This is the city on the heart of the ’I AM’ and He wouldn’t tolerate anything like that. So when you come to worship a child, who or what are you saying this child is? But no one wants to speak out loud the logical answer to that because even though we have the Immanuel prophecy, the thought of divinity being in our midst is too much.

I have written on this before and every time I struggle as I write because I believe to those living at the time, this was mysterious, and we lose the mystery in familiarity. But everything about the coming of this child is strange, but then if he is God (somehow?) then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that God communicated this by His Holy Spirit, by Angels and now by strange (scientific?) seekers from the east.

But why all this ‘cloak and dagger’ stuff, this half hidden playing with us? Why not have a seriously scary meeting with Herod or the Chief Priest and scare them into submission as He tells them what He is doing? I was going to say that God doesn’t do scary but the angel scared the shepherds and we’ll see some more fear before we are finished with this Part. But mostly God doesn’t do scary, most of the time He wants to win our hearts with His love and He looks for honest responses, responses of the individual will, responses that are simple and open, responding to the wonder of His love, not His might. Relationships are built on love and that is what God wants.

These ‘wise men’, like Simeon, are those who have caught something in their spirits. God is up to something and they need to be in on the ground floor, that’s what their gut says, “I need to be there!”  In the case of both Simeon and the Magi, there is no letter from heaven to be read by the eyes and understood by the mind; no, this is down-in-my-spirit stuff that scares many of us. For some of us anything to do with the Spirit is scary because it sometimes challenges the intellect (As when Jesus said to Peter on the lake in the night, “Come”.)  If Simeon hadn’t responded to the Spirit, he would have missed seeing the baby. If the wise men had looked at their star and possibly other portents and said, “Yes, but it’s a long way,” they too would have missed seeing the baby. Would that have mattered? Not to the baby, maybe, but in their spirits, both Simeon and the Magi went away utterly satisfied, knowing who it as they had seen, and all around them were thousands of other people who couldn’t say that! There are some serious challenges here. Dare we face them?

17. Strange Seekers

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas: 17. Strange Seekers

Mt 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.”

Just when everything is settling down and Mary and Joseph might be forgiven for thinking it might be an idea to think about going home to Nazareth, a camel train turns up with three strangers. They are ‘magicians’ or wise men, possibly astronomers, possibly astrologers, not Jews. They are definitely foreigners and they have come from the east. They first turn up in Jerusalem and there they enquire after one who is the newly born king of the Jews. For the present ruler, Herod, this is disturbing (v.3) because he knows nothing of this but, as it seems to fall within the ambit of Jewish folklore or Biblical law, he questions the religious leaders who say that ‘the Coming One’, the Christ or Messiah, will come from Bethlehem (v.4-6). Herod sends them on there with a request to come back and tell what they have found (v.7,8).

It turns out that these wise men have apparently been following a star (v.7) which appeared in the sky, possibly a meteorite, which has led them to Judea. They leave Herod and follow the star which appears to stop over Bethlehem, confirming the words of the religious leaders in Jerusalem.  Somehow, and the text is not specific, they find this little baby: “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 and of incense and of myrrh.” (v.11) The fact of the mention of a house seems to suggest that Mary and Joseph had settled there for the time being at least and the fact of the mention of child and mother but no mention of Joseph, may suggest that Joseph was out working.

We very often focus on the three gifts but the easiest thing to say is that here were three gifts, expensive gifts, that could be easily sold and converted into money to keep them going in their travels, in the near future at least. These three men are God’s material provision for this little family. Now let’s note various thing about their coming and going. (We assume three men because of three gifts, but there may have been more).

First, they are foreigners. This shatters the Jewish illusion that they were the only people God speaks to. God is concerned for all of His world, people of every nationality.

Second, their means of guidance is somewhat strange to say the least. As good Christians, we might think that the Bible is God’s only way of communicating with people. It is not. It is our primary and essential source of our knowledge of Him and His purposes but this does not stop Him communicating with people through other means. Next to the Bible we would say the Holy Spirit is the second primary source of God’s communication and as critical as He is to our relationship with the Lord, He is not the only other way God speaks. God’s word – Old Testament prophecy – was involved here, but these seekers from the east also used signs – the star – and inevitably the sense that God gave each of them about this quest – maybe by direct communication that we might say was the Holy Spirit. The Lord speaks through many ways and the important thing is that we be open to hear what He wants to say to us, however He chooses to speak to us

Third, they come confirming the message heard previously, this child is a king and one worthy of worship – more than a mere human king, for only God deserves worship.

Fourth, they are sent on their way with a warning dream, a dream that says avoid Herod, so they obey it and do. These are men of faith, people who hear God, respond to God and worship God. May that be said of us as well.

25. Call to Worship

ADVENT MEDITATIONS No.25

25. A Call to Worship

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.”

To maintain our chronological flow of this story, we move now from Luke to Matthew’s account of what happened. In meditations 13 to 15 we saw what had happened to Joseph as recorded at the end of Matthew, chapter 1. Now the child has been born and it is probable that at least a couple of months have passed since then. The family are still living in Bethlehem in Judea which is about 5 miles south of Jerusalem. No reasons are given why they were still there, but when later, they flee to Egypt to fulfil prophecy, it is understandable why they stayed in the south of the country rather than returning up north.

While they are still in Bethlehem, some Magi, or wise astronomers from the East, came to Jerusalem seeking one who has been born (so they arrive after) who is king of the Jews. We’re not told how they got their revelation, beyond the fact that they followed a star (a meteorite perhaps?) which seemed to lead them to Israel. Jerusalem was the capital and so they assumed this is where the new king was born.

Now it’s at this point we have to point out how we so often take for granted things we’ve heard many times before. If you have been to carol services or listened to them on the radio, or watched them on TV, or even attended Nativity plays at your child’s school, you will no doubt have heard many times, We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him, and have come to take those words for granted. Yet they say something quite incredible. You don’t normally worship kings. Yes, you may honour them and kneel before them acknowledging their majesty, but you don’t worship them.

To worship means to bow down in adoration, acknowledging divine greatness – and that’s what these men say they have come to do! The ‘East’ probably means Mesopotamia, an area where civilisation had existed for millennia, and from where Abraham had originally come, an area known for its wise seers, mystics who looked beyond the material world. These men have probably travelled a long way because something in their thinking, their seeking, their mysticism, tells them that one is about to be born who is worthy of their adoration and worship.

In all the accounts so far, we’ve seen a gradual increase in revelation about this child. The angels, who came to Mary and Joseph, indicated something of his special role, and Simeon added to that. Now we find some non-Jews arriving on the scene, sent by how we do not know, and declaring that the child is a king but more than that, one worthy of worship.

I wonder if at the carol services I referred to above, you have ever heard the Isaiah prophecy referring to this coming child: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isa 9:6).  Again, look at these words with new eyes: the child will be called Mighty God, Everlasting Father!  This child is far more than an earthly king. This baby is God in disguise!  No wonder these men say they’ve come to worship him.  Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth and Simeon have all caught something of the wonder of this baby, but it takes some strange men from a far country to make it clear.  This is like a sign post going up now: “This baby is God. Bow down in worship!”  If you responded to the call yesterday, this is your next significant point of call, to worship the One who has come, because he is God in disguise.  It takes wise men to see this truth, because ordinary people just see a baby.  Are you wise today?