Summary: Contrasting the Magi with Herod to show the acceptance of outsiders in the Kingdom of God and a warning to the insiders to be careful.
Ever since I first started preached I have longed to preach this sermon, or rather a sermon with this title. It just struck me as the perfect title for a sermon on the story on magi’s visit to Jesus, Star Trek, but then it is not only about the story of the magi but about how the lessons we are to learn. And so we have Star Trek: The Next Generation.
But you might ask, why am I preaching about the visit of the wise men now? Christmas was a week and half ago. Well some of you may know and some of you may learn, that the 6th of January, tomorrow is Epiphany. It is precisely 12 days after Christmas, hence the 12 days of Christmas and was actually celebrated before Christmas was. And the epiphany was in fact the day when the visit of the magi to Jesus was remembered. Hence this sermon.
Its a well known story. We hear it every Christmas. However, how much do you really know about some of the people in the story. Firstly, it didn’t take place in a stable at the same time that the shepherds came. The word used to describe Jesus means a young boy rather than a baby and Herod kills all boys under the age of 2. This suggests that some time had passed since Jesus had been born. Further if the Magi saw a star at the birth of Jesus then it would take some time to mount and carry out an expedition to Bethlehem.
The Magi, or wise men as we sometimes say. There is no evidence that these were Kings although the traditional assertation that they were is possibly due to Isaiah 60 which mentions Kings coming and bringing gifts of gold and frankincense to the Messiah. The idea of their being 3 comes of course from the fact that there are 3 gifts mentioned. We don’t know exactly who the Magi were although those of you who have seen the film the Mummy will know that at least one idea for the Magi are that they were from Egypt. However, the fact that they are described as coming from the east suggests that Egypt to the south was not their origin. It is more likely that they came from Babylon, where there was a Jewish community and opportunity to be familiar with at least some of the Jewish prophecies concerning a Messiah. In fact in light of the fact that it says their journey was in response to a star it is extremely likely that they were in fact priestly astrologers from Babylon.
But what about that star. Popular belief has our magi riding camels following a star. However, if our magi followed a moving star, why did they stop in Jerusalem. In actual fact we read that they saw the star in the east, came to Jerusalem and then saw the star again when they left for Bethlehem. At which point it did move ahead of them and rest where Jesus was staying. This suggests that there was something supernatural about the star. However, the initial sighting in the east may have had an explanation. There are a few suggestions, one is Halley’s comet which passed by in 12 BC, however there was also an astrological sign in 7 BC, when Jupiter and Saturn entered the constellation Pices while a supernova was recorded as taking place in 5-4 BC by Chinese astronomers. Any of these are possible for the star that was seen in the east. However, as I said there is also a strong possibility that this was something entirely supernatural.
Finally, there is Herod. The one who was so desperate to hold on to power that he had all the babies under 2 killed in Jerusalem. We know from history that Herod was not a Jew but a descendant of one of the warring nations that strove to control Israel after Alexander the Great’s empire split in four. He also married into the Hasmonean dynasty, which was the dynasty of high priest’s who ruled Judea until the time of the Romans. He was put in place to rule by the Romans as King and was a competent administrator and had dealt with several revolts against Rome successfully from a Roman point of view. However, he was also ruthless, killing people who had a rival claim to the throne, including two of his sons. In fact it is due to Herod that we know that Jesus was not born in 1 AD since Herod died in or just after 4 BC.
But like most of you sitting here I am forced to ask the question so what? Who cares?
Well the first point to notice is who the people are in the story and how they react to Jesus. We have King Herod and the Jews of Jerusalem. These are the Jews to whom the Messiah was supposed to come. The ones to whom God was bringing fulfilment. These were the very people who were supposed to be jumping for joy because their Messiah had finally come. These were the people who should be streaming to Jesus in worship and thanks giving and these were the ones who were deeply troubled and who conspired to kill Jesus. We all know that Herod was not a very nice guy who routinely had people who threatened his throne executed. We know he was not a descendant of David and that he was ruling for the Romans. However, he occupied the place that was supposed to be God’s representative to the people. We also know that it was not all of Jerusalem who was troubled by hearing that the Messiah had finally come, it was more likely the rulers and leaders who Herod called who were upset. Whether this attitude filtered down to the common people or whether they were just upset because their leaders where concerned about something, we don’t know. But the symbolism is very stark, especially when we look at the rest of the story. The Jews, God’s chosen people, the ones whom Jesus was sent to were the ones who rejected him. (Not universally, but as a nation and a people.)