Summary: Christmas is also about the gifts we are to offer in return, not to earn God's favor, but like the magi it is worth a life’s journey to follow whatever destinations may be given us to worship and to give our treasures to our Savior and our King.
Matthew 2:1-12 The Magi’s Sign
12/8/02 D. Marion Clark
“Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.” At least that is everyone’s concern about the star of Bethlehem. Of all the elements of the Christmas story, the visit of the magi who followed a star is the most controversial. The theories about what the star actually was seem to be as numerous as the stars in the sky! Some to believe the story clearly to be fiction because of the common practice in the ancient world of attributing celestial signs to momentous events, such as the birth of kings.
Devout Christians have their own set of issues. Many still cannot accept that the visit took place maybe up to two years after Jesus’ birth, and surely it says three kings somewhere in the text. Are we really to dispute what our hymns say? Have you ever seen a nativity with four kings? Are they ever kneeling before a toddler?
We will consider these matters, but most of our time we will explore what Matthew wants us to learn from his story. Remember this principle. To get the most out of what Scripture records, we’ve got to understand why the author wrote what he did. See if you can figure it out before I get to the “what we learn from this text” portion of my sermon.
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, 2 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.”
Who are these wise men? We don’t the number. Three is as good a guess as any, but we really don’t know. We also don’t know any names. Some good stories have been told about them, but they are fictional names and stories. Where they came from we also don’t know. It seems reasonable to depict them as coming from Persia, the land of Babylon. We can get a general impression, however, of their profession.
The Greek term for them is “magi.” In the Greek and Persian societies, magi were persons endowed with special knowledge. Many specialized in astrology, which was the astronomy of their day. Some were known for their ability to interpret dreams and signs. Some practiced magic. Rulers consulted with them for counsel and to predict the success of ventures they were about to take. If we still practiced the same beliefs, our president would consult with them about going to war. They might examine the liver of a sacrificed animal or observe signs in the sky.
These magi speak of a star. The translation, by the way, could be “star in the east” or “rising star.” Some phenomenon in the night sky has moved them to travel to a foreign land in search of a king. What did they see and how did they know what king? That they identified him as “king of the Jews” is further evidence they came from Persia. Do you know who else lived in the old land of Babylon? Jews, a sizable community. That is where they lived in exile when Babylon conquered them. One of the greatest magi in Babylon had been a Jew – Daniel. The great interpreter of dreams surely left his mark and would have been known even centuries later. It is quite likely that these magi knew of him and were well acquainted with the Jewish community of their day. Perhaps they were even like the Roman centurion and the Ethiopian eunuch who were attracted to the Jewish religion. Even so, the Jews anticipated the coming of the Messiah just as we today anticipate his return. Anyone familiar with the Jews would not of their expectations of the Messiah’s appearance.
Did they see a star, a planet, a supernova, a special alignment of planets, a comet? Or was it a supernatural phenomenon like the cloud of pillar that led the Israelites through the wilderness? You, unfortunately, have a pastor, whose eyes glaze over as he listens to astronomical explanations and thus cannot give an intelligent opinion. The one thing I would note is that we do not have to develop a theory of a moving star. They do not follow a star to Jerusalem. It is not until they have left Jerusalem and head to Bethlehem. Even then, it is unclear when they see the star again, which may have been when they were in sight of the house itself. Is it a star on the low horizon that gives the appearance of hanging right over the house? Is there a special glow? We don’t know, but a number of explanations could fit the scene described.