January 5, 2003

Matthew 2:1-12

On January 21, 1982, a son was born to Prince Charles and the late Lady Diana. His name was William, and nearly everyone in the western world and even beyond heard about him. We were informed through every imaginable channel, and even to this day, the media keeps us apprised of William and the affairs of the royal family. Quite appropriate, wouldn’t you say, for a future king.

What a contrast, however, between the birth of William and the birth of the one who was called “the desire of all nations,” for without such pomp and pageantry, Jesus entered this world in the little town of Bethlehem. Yet, such an unadorned arrival was equally appropriate for the one who made himself nothing. There were some visitors, of course, including a group of magi or wise men. Given the distances involved, however, even they must have arrived several weeks after the fact. We read about their journey here in Matthew 2.

Sometime after the birth of Jesus and during the reign of Herod, a group of men came to Jerusalem from somewhere in the East. Both their precise point of origin as well as the exact number in their party goes unmentioned. In fact, even their title is somewhat vague. We can be confident, however, that these foreign dignitaries were astrologers of some sort, accustomed to studying the heavens.

On one particular night, they noticed something quite unusual: a star unlike others they had seen, and it prompted them to begin their long journey from the east to the west. How they came is unspecified. Why they came is quite clear: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We have come to worship him.” We sense no hesitancy in their question. They do not ask “Was he born?” but “Where?” Clearly, these travelers are confident that their trip was not in vain.

The response they received, however, was probably somewhat unexpected. If they, coming from the east, were aware of this special birth, surely those in Jerusalem would themselves be already worshiping. Quite to the contrary, the visitors soon find that information was scarce. No one seems to know anything. Even a stop at the Tourist Information Center inside Jaffa Gate provides no assistance.

Within what appears to have been a relatively short period of time, the astrologers’ inquiry comes to Herod’s attention. By this time, however, all of Jerusalem is frightened and confused. And their corporate, implicit response? “We know of no such king.” Even Herod is on the edge of his seat, quite disturbed by all that has transpired. That a man of Herod’s age would feel threatened by a newborn child only serves to emphasize how desperate he has become.

Suddenly, Herod himself longs to know the answer to the wise men’s question. In desperation he summons together the entire Sanhedrin—all of the teachers of the law. Herod himself is surely no total stranger to such prophecy; perhaps he is hoping that he is mistaken and that there is in fact nothing to worry about. If so, he is not mistaken. Whether such a king was born already these advisors do not say. That such a king was to be born, in Bethlehem of all places, is a point upon which they all agree.

Given the verification of the learned teachers, Herod’s distress continues to mount. Immediately he summons the Magi, whom he has not yet met himself, and seeks additional information. Note that he does so secretly, lest those around him sense how deeply troubled he actually is.

“Exactly when did you see the star?” he asks. Herod’s interest in this event might seem a bit suspicious were it not for his religious façade. “When you find him, tell me, that I may worship him too!” In actuality, Herod is most likely already planning the atrocious massacre of Bethlehem’s children, a massacre spelled out in verse 16. What is somewhat surprising, however, is Herod’s apparent trust in the wise men, for he sends them on their way without any type of escort. Bethlehem was but a few miles away. Why not send a spy or two to make sure that the proper information returns? The sly fox will soon be outfoxed.

In any case, the Magi, who no doubt had expected to find this king in Jerusalem, head south to Bethlehem. Will no one go with them? If the city of Jerusalem has indeed been disturbed, is there no one to go along to see the king? Men from way off in the east are going—will the people of Jerusalem themselves stay home? How discouraging this must have been for the Magi. They came to Jerusalem, and found no king. They asked the very people over whom he was to rule, but they know nothing. Most would have turned back at this point, but they move on. But how will they find their way? And once they arrive in Bethlehem, how will they know where to go? If the people of Jerusalem know nothing, will the people of Bethlehem know any more?

It will not matter, for it has now become clearly apparent that someone else is giving them directions. The same star which prompted this journey will see it through to its completion. And so they arrive in Bethlehem and come to their destination. No longer a stable or a cave, not even a manger. Instead, the child has been moved to a house.

Imagine the Magi’s delight for having reached the end of their journey. But is this what they expected? No temple—just a small house in a simple town. No fanfare. No fireworks. No crown. Not even a robe. Just a young child who nobody else seems to know about. Was the journey worth the time and effort? Magi from the east to see a village child? “And when they saw him, they bowed down and worshiped him.” Why, they didn’t even do that when they saw Herod! “Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and incense and myrrh.” Disappointed? What do you think? I think they knew, without a doubt, that they had found the one they came looking for. Not “a” king, but “the” king.
What we have here is indeed a marvelous, marvelous story, bursting with a variety of dynamics. It is a story that Christians in all places have read for hundreds and hundreds of years to begin celebrating the arrival of Jesus in the world. As we sense the drama unfolding, we find encouragement as well as challenge. Here we encounter a number of things.

We notice, first of all, that the Son of God came to Bethlehem rather than Jerusalem. Jerusalem, as many in ancient Israel believed, was God’s chosen city. Jerusalem had once been thought to be unconquerable. It was the center of national life, serving as the political hub for the region. The administrative buildings there—the Antonio Fortress, Herod’s palace, and so on—were no less imposing and inspiring in their day than are the Capital Building and the White House in our own. Jerusalem served as the center of economic life. All the farmers, shepherds, and merchants traveled to the city on a regular basis to sell their crops and crafts. Jerusalem served as the center of religious life. There was a concentration of “theologians” there, and people frequently came to the city to worship at the temple. Jerusalem’s walls were strong, and the city was hustling and bustling.

And the Son of God came to Bethlehem.

We notice, secondly, that the Son of God came to the Jew first, but also to the Gentile. Jesus came to Mary and Joseph, lifelong inhabitants of the so-called “Holy Land.” He came to the children of the promise—the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He came to serve in the line of David.

But the Son of God also came to these nameless foreigners who had traveled from far away in the East, foreigners from an entirely different place, entirely different culture, entirely different set of customs and beliefs. Lest there be any nationalistic, ethnic or even religious favoritism attached to the Christ-child, Matthew quickly makes it clear—Jesus came to people of all nations.

Third, we notice that the Son of God was revealed to both the humble and the wise, the ignorant and the learned. Jesus came to common people in a lonely village. People with no particular claim to fame. People with no noteworthy credentials or titles. People with calloused and dirty hands. People who might never stand out in a crowd.

But the Son of God also came to the likes of these foreign dignitaries. People with formal training. People with letters behind their names. People who spend considerable time observing and reflecting. People whose very arrival in the town caused a stir among the crowd.

Fourth, we see that the Son of God came to the poor and the rich. He revealed himself to a carpenter and his wife who earned an ordinary living and inhabited a simple home. People who struggle just to make ends meet. People who essentially live from day to day.
But the Son of God also came to these magi who could not only afford to take a journey of this nature, but could also bring precious gifts along with them. People who can plan well ahead and think carefully about what to do with everything that they have.

We must be careful to notice, finally, that although Jesus was born to be the king over leaders and farmers, Jews and Gentiles, ignorant and learned, rich and poor, he often goes unnoticed by many. In fact, it is often those who have the least distance to travel who never make the journey at all. Those in Jerusalem knew of no such king. Those from the east came a long, long way to worship him. They traveled through unanswered questions, withstood the interrogation of a competing ruler, and overcame discouragement. As a result, they found their king.

Have you found your king? Do you have a long way to go? A lot of things to work through? A lot of questions that still need to be answered? A great deal of doubt to overcome? Or maybe you are very, very close. Perhaps in the next town over. He who was to be born king has come. You won’t find him in the middle of worldly pomp and celebrations, like we did Prince William some twenty years ago. You won’t find him, as George MacDonald cautions us, in the misrepresentations often put forward by countless theologians—“a great King on a grand throne, thinking how grand he is, and making it the business of his being and the end of his universe to keep up his glory, wielding the bolts of a Jupiter against them that take his name in vain.”

Then where will you find him? Look over there, MacDonald continues. “There he is, kissing little children and saying they are like God. There he is at table with the head of a fisherman lying on his bosom….” There he is, we might add, standing beside the stove in your kitchen, sitting beside the desk in your office, and walking down the sidewalk in your town. Have you found the king? You will if you quietly ask him to set up his throne in your heart.