Some of you may remember that my husband Barry was giving up chocolate, sweets and biscuits for the whole of 2018. I am pleased to tell you that, apart from an unfortunate incident at a local restaurant, where the chef accidentally put chocolate sauce on his sticky toffee pudding, despite being told explicitly of the challenge, Barry did it! He resolved to do something greatly challenging, and he managed it. Despite temptation, frustration, and a little bit of suspected foul play, he did it… rather like those in our reading this morning.
In our Gospel reading we are introduced, at last, to the magi from the east, our wise men, our three kings. Though we don’t know that there were three, there may have been more, we do know from our reading that they set out on a greatly challenging journey, with temptation, frustration and attempted foul play.
What do we know then?
We know that the wise men arrived in Jerusalem, after Jesus was born. They didn’t arrive in Bethlehem where this King they were seeking actually was. So, the Magi’s challenging journey was also one of surprises.
We know that whilst a new baby brings curiosity, it doesn’t necessarily bring visitors from far away, unless they are family or close friends. This points to Jesus’ royalty, as we also know that a royal family would await visits from across the kingdom and further… if someone didn’t turn up to pay homage to your new child, it would be seen as a slight against you.
When I think of this I think of the Disney classic, The Lion King: Simba (the lion cub, and son of the King) is shown to the entire pride land and kingdom for the first time. He is held up and presented to the gathering of animals, except for one… his uncle, Scar, who is less than pleased that his older brother, Mufasa, has successfully produced an heir to his throne. He does not turn up.
We know if you wanted to show respect to a new heir to the throne, you turned up. The Magi’s challenging, surprising journey was also one of honour and respect.
We know that when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem and began asking around, word soon reached King Herod, the man who had been appointed King of the Jews by the Roman authorities. “All Jerusalem” is likely hyperbole; the entire city was not terrified. Instead of all Jewish people being afraid, it is more likely that Matthew means the royal we: the Jewish leadership; those who had something to fear by the arrival of the rightful King of the Jews. The Magi’s challenging, surprising, honouring journey was also one of fear.
We know that Herod required evidence, so he could make sense of what was being said. In verse 4-6 we see that, through this evidence, Herod is given a frame of reference for the child he wants to find. Later in Matthew he orders the death of all boys under 2 years old. It is reasonable to conclude that it had taken the Magi 2 years to travel to Jerusalem. The Magi’s challenging, surprising, honouring journey that brought fear was also one of danger.
In verse 7 we begin to see Herod’s fear and insecurity work itself out into action: he begins a manipulation in order that he might find this new King and put an end to him. Herod’s own desire to have power leads him to do unthinkable things, like killing the vulnerable. It seems an appalling stretch, but I wonder if we ever put our own desires or insecurities above others, to their detriment.
It is reasonable to assume from the text that the star appeared in the night sky above Bethlehem at the moment Jesus was born, and then disappeared again. In the school’s Christingle service the children sang of the star: Oh and love shone down, over the hills and over the valleys, oh and love shone down over the world. I found the imagery of that so poignant: that Jesus’ birth delighted his heavenly Father so much he couldn’t help but show off with the biggest and brightest star in the night sky. That same star of love appears again in verse 8, just as the Magi needed some guidance.
At this point I’d like to just say how this part of the story never ceases to amaze me. Here was this group of men, who weren’t Jewish, or even from the surrounding area, and they chose to make a significantly challenging and dangerous journey. They could have decided in Jerusalem that they’d been mistaken, and yet they trusted in a star, sent by a God they probably didn’t even believe in. And what happens next is astonishing.
Verse 10 says, when they saw the star they were overjoyed.
Jubilant, rapturous, euphoric, exultant, delirious. All words which come up when you look for synonyms of the word overjoyed. When was the last time you were overjoyed? For me, it was on New Years Day when we took our daughter ice skating for the first time. Neither Barry nor I are too hot on our feet when it comes to ice skating, but she insisted on standing up to push the aid we had got for her to sit on. Our little girl had such joy and delight in her face, especially as she got better and better. Watching her enjoyment gave me such a deep sense of joy. How much more so for the Magi, when they finally glimpsed that star ahead of them?
The Magi had set out on their challenging and dangerous journey. They’d no doubt been disappointed in Jerusalem when they arrived and were met with suspicion and manipulation. They’d been given the next clue, Bethlehem, but really it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Their journey had hit a dead end, until… The star appeared. The same star. That star of heavenly grandeur and love. Suddenly, their journey was one of joy and hope, as they hurried to greet the new King.
They arrive, and the magi enter the house and see Mary with Jesus; they kneel down and WORSHIP him.
Imagine the scene: by entering the house, the Magi likely walked into the courtyard, from which rooms opened off from. If they had arrived in the daytime, Mary would have been sat doing tasks (sorting the food for a meal, or sewing), Jesus would have been doing what 2-year olds do: toddling, making noise, playing, eating mud off the ground. As it happens, they were led by a star and so the family would have been inside for the night. Jesus was probably still doing what toddlers do though!
In the Magi walked, into an ordinary house, with an ordinary family. They had come from the King’s courts in Jerusalem, from great grandness. And yet, as they arrived in this humble home, with a humble family, they recognised the child – the toddler, likely dirty and noisy. They recognised him as the KING. And they worshipped him.
They offered him the gifts they had brought: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Upon kneeling, whilst feeling overwhelmed with joy, the Magi offered this toddler KING gifts they had brought with them.
The magi come prepared to show honour and bless new royalty with gifts fit for their status. Gold, for Jesus, because of his kingship, frankincense because of his priesthood, and myrrh??? In ancient times, myrrh was a valuable commodity. Beyond being used as incense, it was used also as perfume, and medicine. Most specifically, myrrh was commonly used (especially in Egypt) in the process of embalming. I cannot help but wonder what drew the magi to choose a substance used in death as a present for the new King. After all, we know Jesus was embalmed with myrrh at his death, as it says in John 19.
In the carol “We Three Kings” we sing these words: Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes of life, of gathering gloom; Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb. Glorious now, behold him arise; King and God and Sacrifice. ‘Alleluia’ ‘Alleluia’ Earth to Heaven replies.
I love this carol and, though it’s definitely a carol, you could be forgiven for thinking it fits at Easter. It’s the moment when the present gift looks toward the future sacrifice. It serves as a reminder that Jesus did not come to live an ordinary life. He came to die for us. He came to die for our sins. He came to die, so we might live. As we begin our journey, from stable to tomb, we turn our eyes away from the sweet baby in the manger towards the pain wrought face of a dying man and his words: it is finished.
These wise men, the kings, the Magi, they undertook a challenging and dangerous journey, and were greeted with the face of God himself. They brought gifts fit for a Heavenly King, and they could not help but worship Him. During Advent I read through Luke’s Gospel and what jumped out to me was that time and time again people meet Jesus and they worship Him; Jesus performs miracles for people, and they worship Him; Jesus takes the time to listen to people, and they worship Him. When people come face to face with God, whether as a toddler or as a man, they cannot help but worship him.
What then can we do, but pour out our whole lives as a living sacrifice… a living worship to him?
As it says in another carol, What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him, give my heart.
Matthew 2: 1 – 12