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, asking, ‘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.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“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.”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then 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.’ When 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
“wise men” / Magi people whose job, among other things, was to search the stars for signs, that might indicate a shift in history. And some sort of star has arisen which – for them – points to a new King in Israel. Quite what this star was is much disputed, but the Magi come to Herod who quite understandably is frightened. He is not aware of a new King and has no desire for one! Bethlehem is the city of David, so this will be a king from the stock of David (and Herod is not descended from David).
The Magi seem rather naïve, given their knowledge of politics and Herod nearly dupes them. They are naïve too at another level maybe. They have travelled far with baggage camels and all, maybe a 1000 miles from modern-day Iraq or Iran; they have brought gifts of great value, but there is nothing (other than the star above) to suggest that this baby is a king. Very ordinary circumstances, yet they do two remarkable things – they leave these gifts and they pay the child homage – that is they offer themselves as his people.
Isaiah speaks of a time when the kings will bring tribute to a restored Zion (ch 60), a time when nations shall come to the light and from all over peoples will bring tribute and gifts, not least gold and frankincense (v6). This changes our understanding of what the Magi represent- they are not just religious seekers from afar but they are the first signs of the nations bringing their tribute to the true King. In this little house in Bethlehem representatives of the nations bring gold and frankincense. But Matthew says they also bring myrrh, which is not mentioned in Isaiah 60, but which is for the care of a dead body. This is a further element in the story, another layer to make sense of.
2000 years later people from across all nations find faith in Jesus, Christians can be naïve in their attitudes to politics – and in the very ordinary of the world today, do we bring our tribute and leave it for God, trusting that in God’s time the Kingdom will be seen in all its glory.
In our worship and homage do we offer gold for Kingship, incense to the one who is our High Priest but do we also acknowledge the cost of our salvation. Does an encounter with God lead to us going on by a different road, or are we set in our ways?
Revd Peter Reiss