Summary: Like the magi’s journey to Bethlehem, a life devoted to the adoration of Jesus is costly and requires preparation and often takes us through difficulty.
Sometime early in this century it became fashionable to use the expression “war on Christmas” to cover everything related to any kind of controversy about the observance of Christmas in our culture. While some of the issues that fall under that heading certainly ought to be of concern to us as disciples of Jesus, I think that frankly some of the things that Christians want to label as a “war on Christmas” have done nothing but make us look pretty foolish. Arguing about whether people should say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays” or boycotting Starbucks because they’ve removed snowflakes or poinsettias or Christmas ornaments that were on their Christmas cups in previous years really does nothing to point people to the true meaning of Christmas or advance the gospel. In fact, those kinds of petty arguments probably do more to harm the advancement of the gospel than to promote it.
But there certainly is a much more profound and deeper “war on Christmas” and, as we’ll see this morning, that war is really nothing new. Not surprisingly, many people have been waging war on Christmas since right after Jesus was born.
This morning we’ll look at the account of some events that actually occurred a while after the birth of Jesus even though they are usually associated with that first Christmas. While the text does give us some clues about when these events occurred, we can’t determine their exact timing, although it is likely that they took place between one and two years after the birth of Jesus.
Once again this morning, there is no “fill-in-the-blank” outline in your bulletin. There is plenty of room for you to make your own notes if you want but once again my hope is that we’ll use this text to imagine what it would have been like to be part of these events and take a fresh look at them. We’ll be reading from Matthew chapter 2 this morning, so you can open your Bibles to that chapter and follow along or you can follow along on your bulletin insert.
I’ll begin reading in verse 1:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
In these first two verses, we’re introduced to two of the main characters in this account. We’ll come back to King Herod in just a moment when we discuss his reaction to the birth of Jesus.
But let’s look first at the other main characters introduced here - the “wise men”. Without a doubt these are the most misunderstood characters in the entire Christmas narrative. We’ve certainly perpetuated a lot of the myths about them through our music and manmade traditions. You’re probably familiar with some of those.
For instance one popular Christmas song begins with the words “We three kings of Orient are…” As we’ll discover this morning, these men were not kings, although they were certainly kingmakers. They were not from the Orient, at least as we would define that term today. And we don’t know how many of them there were, although it’s almost certain there were more than three.
Early church tradition held that there were twelve of them, even though there is really no Biblical or historical support for that number either. The number was later reduced to three, perhaps because it’s too hard to fit twelve wise men into the Christmas pageant. In the middle ages the church even gave names to these three wise men – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar - and some have claimed that their skulls were miraculously preserved and that they are still on display in a jewel studded glass case in the great cathedral in Cologne.
The Greek word that is translated “wise men” is actually “magoi” and it describes a group of priests and kingmakers that came from the earlier empires of the Medes and the Persians. We get our English word “magic” from that Greek word and as we learn more about these magi this morning, we’ll see why that is so appropriate. So I’m going to refer to them this morning as “magi” rather than “wise men” since that more accurately reflects who they were.
Today, we make a sharp distinction between astronomy – the scientific study of celestial objects, space and the universe - and astrology - the religious worship of those celestial bodies based on the idea that they determine human events. However, the lines were not nearly so clear in the time of Jesus. The magi were stargazers who incorporated both disciplines into their practices.
They were considered the “wise men” of their time and their teaching became known as “the laws of the Medes and the Persians”, a phrase that is used in the Biblical books of both Daniel and Esther. The magi not only served as the top advisors to the Persian kings, but they actually came to be known as kingmakers since any prospective Persian king first had to master their scientific and religious practices and be approved by the magi before taking the throne. There is little doubt that Herod was aware of that reputation, which helps to explain the way he responds to them when they enter Jerusalem.