Lessons from the Magi
We have to say that we don’t know a whole lot about these wise men who come into Jerusalem. I’m not even sure how these persons came to be known as “wise men.” The Greek word is Magoi, the plural of Magos. The transliteration from the Latin is soft ‘g’ Magi. It’s the root from which we get our term “magic.”
We’re told they are from the East. Most scholars believe they came from Iran or Iraq, scholars of the stars in the land of Persia-Babylonia.
And you’ve probably heard that our assuming there were three men is just that, an assumption. “We Three Kings” can be sung as “We Two or “We Five.”
And our last of the popular understanding of the Magi – upon a closer reading of Scripture we aren’t sure they were there right at Jesus’ birth…could very well have been when he was closer to two years old.
What can we say for certain about the Magi? Well, we see that they knew a thing or two about the stars. When a star that was out of place lit up the sky, they noticed it. They were learned men, naturalists. Yes, in tune with nature, unlike many of we moderns, who probably wouldn’t catch on for a few weeks if all the stars dropped out of the sky.
So, on one hand they were akin to modern day astronomers, but they took a strong element of astrology from their observations. They didn’t just track the stars; they believed that the stars were saying something in their movements!
Yes, the Magi were in a long tradition of believing that, just behind the natural world is a supernatural realm that touches and influences the world that we can observe. In fact, the supernatural world and the natural world were two sides of one reality – when something happened in one it showed up in the other.
We, I mean mankind, are incurably religious, aren’t we? Even if we don’t want to be: There’s a side to us that wants to believe that there’s nothing beyond what we can observe and verify. Let me live as a sack of neurons, grow cold, throw me in the ground after (or not), and then I’ll turn into the dirt I’m buried in. All of me with nothing left over.
That makes sense; we don’t see anything else. And yet humans of every place in every time look over all the processes of the natural world and say, “and yet.” There is something else; There is more than nature. In fact, nature is pregnant with meaning from beyond it. What we can observe points into a shadowy mysterious something else.
This stubborn supernaturalism shows up even in strongholds of intellectual skepticism and declared secularism like New England. Tonia and I had to chuckle when a few years ago, a Palm Reader opened up shop just down the road from us in very secular Newton, MA. And in the years afterward, stores adjacent to it opened and shut down, but the Palm Reader survived. In secular, intellectual Boston/Newton. There must be a market among the highly literate for interpreting the supernatural meaning behind the natural!
A by the way: I remember one day driving past the palm reading shop and I told Tonia I’d like to know the future. Being a frugal German Housefrau, she said we’d save some money and she’d read my palm. So she took my palm into her hands and pointed out the wide lines that kind of trailed off into nothing. And then she gave me her interpretation. The wide lines meant that my life was full of people, relationships, and hmm, that’s good. But then she continued, notice that even with all those meaningful relationships my life isn’t really going anywhere…. You don’t go to Germans for optimism.
But let’s come back to the Magi and their astrology. In the Torah, the Creator God had given statutes banning His people Israel from astrology and fortune telling and spiritism and wizardry and dark magic – “Beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away…” (Deuteronomy 4:19)
Of course, these prohibitions weren’t given to Israel because reality was actually flatly material, and there is no supernatural. No, these dark spiritualities trade on a truth – that there is a supernatural world. But through these arts people naively enter into that supernatural realm… and into the grasp of sinister dark powers they couldn’t possibly understand. And hence there was often some evil attached to practicing these arts – all the way from hucksterism to self-harm to ritual prostitution to human sacrifice. See evidence of these in the Bible: all the way from the book of Kings to Simon the Magos in Acts.
So that’s the Magi: from some land east of Israel, not included in the people of God, scientists, followers of the occult, in a way dancing with the devil, shapers of culture, and since they’re able to pack up and “follow their star,” bearing expensive gifts, they must be rather wealthy. Tradition has set their names at Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, but who’s to say.?
And God summons these pagan watchers of the sky with a star in the sky. Was it a comet? Maybe an alignment of Jupiter and Venus? A new star trotted out for the occasion? We can’t say for sure. But we notice this: They were looking to the stars and God led them toward Jesus with a star.
God often uses something in our daily life to start us down the path toward where He wants us. One of my favorite examples of this is what happened with a man named Whittaker Chambers, another intellectual, a Communist spy living in America, writer for the Times, who wrote one of the great books of the 20th century entitled “Witness.”
In the foreword he writes of his break with Communism and his move toward Theism, toward God and Jesus Christ. I quote:
I date my break [with Communism] from a very casual happening. I was sitting in our apartment on St. Paul Street in Baltimore. It was shortly before we moved to Alger Hiss’s apartment in Washington. My daughter was in her highchair. I was watching her eat. She was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life. I liked to watch her even when she smeared porridge on her face or dropped it meditatively on the floor. My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear – those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: “No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature (the Communist view). They could have been created only by immense design.” The thought was involuntary and unwanted. I crowded it out of my mind. But I never wholly forgot it or the occasion. I had to crowd it out of my mind. If I had completed it, I should have had to say: Design presupposes God. I did not then know that, at that moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead.
God uses the natural world to train attention onto His big news, because God is the Author of nature. But His message through nature is never enough, is it? From nature we sense general things: there’s a problem and we are aware of the majesty of God who might or might not be for us, but it’s still rather vague.
The Magi looked up at the star and they know that they needed to go, generally. Matthew wants to make this clear. The star led the Magi generally toward Jesus, but it awaited the Word to direct them to the specific place where God was bringing them. The vague sense that there’s something out there, isn’t enough. Even the awakening of God … be it through glorious display in nature or by affliction … won’t avail until it brings us to the Word.
And so it happened. The star brings the Magi to Jerusalem where the Word of God was spoken, and the Word directs them to Jesus!
Let me say this: I don’t know what God used to bring you into church tonight – it could be a sickness, a dream, watching your kids, a happening at work, some sports event, a movie… Whatever God used, He brought you here, and now you’re before the Word, which is what this ministry is about. Wonderful!
Don’t miss their reaction when they arrived at where Jesus was: joy! And surely this joy is at the heart of the Christian message!
Please note, Matthew, the reporter of this account is yet another reserved, understated writer of Scripture. So this sentence comes as a jolt: even before they see Jesus, Matthew says, literally, that they rejoice with joy,… great (Mega)… exceeding. It’s like getting a text from your grandpa who’s never used exclamation marks in any previous texts, and in this one there are four exclamation marks along with party hat emojis.
This is a great, unearthly, supernatural joy of things coming together. Let me list some things that comprised this joy.
- The non-human creation points the way so that humanity can worship their Creator. In this way the non-human creation serves humanity, which is as it was meant to be. There’s something about this whole episode that deeply connects with us as human beings.
- Immanuel, God with us, lies under that star– and that’s at the heart of what the wise men were seeking. In the child Jesus the supernatural and the natural come together. Jesus is the Eternal Son of the Father, the Creator of the world…and also from this time through all of future eternity is 100% man. He is the place where heaven and earth meet – a true Temple, a living Temple. And Jesus Himself is the only safe portal between the supernatural and natural world. Some 33-35 years later, through His broken body He will reconcile the natural world back to God. When we deal with Jesus – in our attention to Him, in reading the Spirit produced Word about Him, in trusting Him… we’re brought into the Holy Presence of God.
- Here The King of the Jews receives homage from pagan Gentiles, and it all is the way it’s supposed to be, that it was promised it would be. The story of Israel contained in the OT was always intended to widen out into the story of the whole world when Israel’s Messiah came.
- Jesus, the Savior receives sinners into his house…no, God has summoned them to him: idolatrous sky-watchers, intellectuals, shepherds, at Jesus’ feet there’s grace for Everyman. Yeshua/ Jesus/ Savior – He will save us from our sin. We don’t come before God as the correct, put-together, managing-just-fine creation. But as sinners who need to be saved from sin. And He does.
- And in this scene we realize: it is indeed the season of gifts. God gives His greatest gift. The Magi at great pains bring their precious gifts to the child. And these old astrologers move us to a similar worship by bringing our best and laying it at the feet of the Christ.
And as we search around for what to render to him, remember the question of the old Christmas poem: 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 can I give him/ give him all my heart.
Tonight, by the Spirit of the living Christ quickening these paragraphs and our own spirits, the joy of Christmas once again comes near to us. The joy of God working in our lives to bring us to the knowledge of Jesus the Savior and Christ and Lord. Who will save his people from their sin. In joy, worship him by giving him your heart, by receiving him into your life, especially in giving him your sincere attention . Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift.