Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
January 11, 2015
From the cluster of earthquakes near Dallas to the terrorist attack in Paris, the unsettling events of this week have knocked many people off balance. Reacting out of fear and anger almost always leads to the wrong course of action. From the account of the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus in Matthew 2:1-12 we learn that to receive joy when unsettling events knock us off balance, listen for the voice of God behind circumstances and unexpected people through Scripture.
Most people seem to know that Matthew did not say there were Three Magi but the tradition comes from their three gifts. Matthew also did not say they were kings or came with camels. That comes from Isaiah 60:1-6 which the Church has long associated with the Magi, but the New Testament never refers to in that connection.
To keep this story straight with the rest of the New Testament, we need to know that Herod is a family name used by five different rulers in the New Testament. Herod the Great here at Jesus’ birth. Herod Archelaus caused the Holy Family to go to Nazareth when they returned from Egypt. Herod Antipas disrupted the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus. Herod Agrippa I opposed the Apostles James and Peter. Herod Agrippa II tried the Apostle Paul.
Listen carefully to the familiar story in Matthew 2:1-12.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Herod was an old man at the time Jesus was born. He was paranoid and murderously violent. His fear prevented him from receiving the wholeness Messiah came to bring.
Apparently Herod learned of the Magi seeking a child born King of the Jews from the buzz on the streets. In his fear he only spoke with the Magi secretly after consulting with the Chief Priests and Scribes.
Herod knew enough of the Hebrew Scriptures to realize this child born King of the Jews was likely the Messiah, and he believed the Scriptures could name his birthplace.
But Herod was so arrogant and paranoid he thought that he could stop the Messiah by killing Bethlehem’s babies.
The Chief Priests and Scribes had taught the hope of Messiah since the return from exile in Babylon, but their spiritual insensitivity prevented them from welcoming this hope.
They must have been aware of the buzz on the streets prompted by the Magi. Whether they made the Messianic connection before Herod asked, his question should have awakened the hope they might welcome the Messiah.
These scholars knew and agreed on the Scripture’s answer: the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
However, their academic arrogance and indifference was so deeply engrained they couldn’t hear God’s voice in the very Scripture they knew and taught.
In contrast, the Magi heard and responded to the voice of God that came through unconventional means and received joy!
Not only were the Magi foreigners, they were pagan astrologers. The Hebrew Scriptures mock (Isaiah 47:13-15; Daniel 1:20; 2:27; 4:7; 5:7) and forbid (Jeremiah 10:1-2) the practice of astrology.
The Magi seem not to have much if any access to the Hebrew Scriptures. The star that prompted their journey was some astrological sign at it rising in the east, but not a beacon guiding them west to Jerusalem. How it reappeared to guide them south to Bethlehem is unclear. Mystical dreams were also familiar in their culture, and God spoke to them through a dream, as God sometimes did with the Hebrew prophets.
Unlike Herod or the Chief Priests and Scribes, the Magi heard and heeded the voice of God and were transformed. They did not prevent Herod’s fear driven slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem or break through the indifference of the Chief Priests and Scribes. But they received joy that they carried with them for the rest of their lives.
To receive joy when unsettling events knock us off balance, listen for the voice of God behind circumstances and unexpected people through Scripture.
While the news may keep us informed about unsettling events, we must listen more deeply to hear God’s voice.
Herod rightly recognized the child born King of the Jews was the Messiah, but he reacted out of fear. The Chief Priests and Scribes rightly identified Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah, but they reacted with arrogance. If we listen deeply enough we can hear the voice of God scrambled with unlikely people.
While we correctly affirm Scripture as the inspired, reliable, authoritative Word of God, as we read we must listen expecting not only to hear the voice of God in the pages of the Bible, but also expecting Scripture to enable us to discern God’s voice behind unlikely circumstances and people. Following God’s voice will take us on unfamiliar paths that lead us to deep, abiding joy.