At this time of year, many Canadians like to travel, to get away from the cold. Iíd like to think about a trip that a group of men took more than 2,000 years ago. Our Bible passage today is Matt. 2:1-12.

1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, 2 "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him." 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: 6 'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.'" 7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; 8 and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." 9 When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; 11 and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
A Message From Beyond

So, who were these wise men? Well, letís first get out of the way who they werenít. A popular Christmas carol starts, ďWe three kings of Orient are,Ē but in fact Matthew doesnít say they were kings, he says they were magi, or wise men. And he doesnít say how many of them there were. Itís traditionally said that there were three of them, which may be so, because Matthew does say that they brought three gifts, which weíll talk about in a few minutes. So much for who they werenítówho were they? In fact the magi were originally an order of astrologer-priests in Persia, who were experts in soothsaying and interpreting dreams. By the time Jesus was born, the word was used of fortunetellers in general. These magi are clearly astrologers; thatís why they see the star. They may be dream interpreters as well, since God speaks to them in a dream in v. 12.

I just said that the magi see the star because as astrologers theyíre watching the sky, and that tells us something about who they are. But it also tells us something else. God uses the star to tell them about the birth of Jesus because theyíre astrologers. We could say God preaches the good news of Jesus to them in a language they can understand. Paul gives us another example of this in Rom. 1:19-20:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.

In other words, God has always spoken to all people in creation, because anyone who looks at creation should be able to see that there is a creator, even if thatís all they can tell because they donít have any other information about God besides creation itself. So we can say that creation itself is a way that God speaks to people in a way they can understand, to reach them where they are.

God did this in still another way at Pentecost. That day there were Jews who had come to Jerusalem from all over the Mediterranean world for the feast. They didnít speak Aramaic, the language of Israel at that time, and the language of the disciples. And the disciples didnít speak any of the languages of the visitors. So God miraculously gave the disciples the ability to preach in the visitorsí languages, so the visitors could hear and understand the Gospel.

Paul himself seems to have been very skilled in this area. He spoke to the Athenians, who were into philosophy, in the language of philosophy, about the God of creation. He even quoted a couple of their poets. He spoke to Jews using the Scriptures, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah. He says, ďTo the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the lawóthough not being myself under the lawóthat I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the lawónot being without law toward God but under the law of Christóthat I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.Ē(1 Cor. 9:20-22). Thatís what we have to do if weíre going to reach the world with the Gospel. We have to reach people where they are.

Would Paul use the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and contemporary music with lights and smoke to reach young people, if those things had been available to him? Would he appear on radio and TV? We canít discuss that issue fully here. Let me just say that I think Paul would use all the means at his disposal to spread the Gospel, and so should we. Some people say the media is the devilís playground, completely taken over by Satan. I say we shouldnít leave it to him. That doesnít mean we should water down the Word of God or change it in any way. But, provided that we do it with integrity, we can present the timeless content of the Gospel in a way that shows how relevant it is to people today.

A Birth Announcement

But letís not wander too far off the path of our journey through the story of the magi. We may divide our passage into two parts. In verses 1-6 we see the announcement of Jesusí birth; in verses 7-12 we see reactions to Jesusí birth. Jesusí birth is announced in two ways. As weíve seen, itís announced to the magi through direct revelation in the form of the star. Itís announced to Herod and the chief priests and scribes through the Scriptures. This is important, because both kinds of announcement are needed. God speaks to the magi through the star, but they need to turn to the Scriptures to get the whole story. The star leads them to Judea, but only the Scriptures can lead them to Bethlehem in Judea. Notice that the star comes back in verse 9 to validate their search. By the way, I suggest that this is a supernatural star, sent by God to guide the magi as he sent the pillar of fire and cloud to guide the Israelites through the desert. Herod and the chief priests and scribes, on the other hand, have the Scriptures. But without the Spirit of God operating in their lives, they canít respond properly to them. Itís the same for us. If we study the Scriptures but donít have the Spirit operating in us, the studying is just an academic exercise. Good for the brain, but not helpful to the soul. At the other extreme, itís easy enough to think that God is speaking something into our spirit when in fact itís just our imagination or our desires. And a few leaps of the imagination can land us in all kinds of error. The written Word acts as a check, because God wonít contradict himself by saying something to our spirit thatís contrary to what he has already said in his Word. So we need both: the revelation of the Spirit to activate our study of the Scriptures, and the Scriptures to verify and validate what the Spirit has revealed.

The magi ask, ďWhere is he who has been born King of the Jews?Ē Already we see a contrast between Jesus, who is King of the Jews by right of birth, and Herod, who is king because he was appointed by the Romans. In fact Herod wasnít even an Israelite; he was an Idumean, from the territory south of Israel. By the way, there are three Herods mentioned in the New Testament. This is Herod the Great, father of Herod Antipas, who is mentioned at the end of the Gospel of Luke, and great-great-grandfather of Herod Agrippa II, who is mentioned in the book of Acts. Herod the Great was paranoid about any threat to his position, so much so that he had several members of his own family murdered so that he could stay in power. No wonder heís troubled when he hears that someone has been born King of the Jews. And because Herod is troubled, all Jerusalem is troubled with him, because all Jerusalem knows how Herod might react to this news.

When the magi ask Herod where the newborn King of the Jews is, he doesnít know. He does know that he hasnít had a son born to him recently. Whoever this new arrival is, wherever he is, heís someone elseís son. So Herod sees him as a threat to his power. And that makes Herod want to find the baby as much as the magi do, if for a very different reason. So he calls for the chief priests and scribes. If anyone knows what the Scriptures say about this, itís them. Sure enough, they have the answer: the Christ will be born in Bethlehem in Judea. They quote Micah 5:2: ďBut you, O Bethlehem Ephratha, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.Ē Except thatís not quite what they say, is it? Did you catch the difference? Micah says that Bethlehem is too little to be among the clans of Judah, but in Matt. 2:6 the chief priests and scribes say that Bethlehem is by no means least among the rulers of Judah. Why the change? I can only answer that with the same answer my Old Testament professor gave: the coming of Jesus makes all the difference. In Micahís day, Bethlehem was an insignificant little village, and to this day itís not a large city. In Jesusí time there were probably only about 300 people living there, and it didnít suddenly get larger when he was born. But his presence there gave it a significance that it hadnít had before. When I thought about that, it occurred to me that itís the same with us. With Jesus in our lives, we arenít too little. When he comes into our lives, he gives our lives a meaningfulness and a purpose which they just donít have without him. Few things enhance our lives like having a reason to get up in the morning. And thereís another way that we arenít too little. Whatever God wants us to do, we arenít too little to do it, because he will strengthen us and help us. We can do all things through him who empowers us (Phil. 4:13). God has a call on each of our lives, and if we turn to him for strength, heíll give us all the resources we need to do what heís called us to do. No matter how big or how hard the job God has for us, he wonít leave us high and dry and unable to do it.

Mayhem and Majesty

We saw above that in the second part of our passage, verses 7-12, we have the reactions to Jesusí birth. We have three different reactions. Herod reacts with hatred and hostility. He sends the magi to Bethlehem, telling them to find out exactly who and where the child is, because he wants to worship him too. At least, thatís what Herod tells them he intends to do. In fact, he intends to get rid of this little interloper whoís threatening his power, and if we were to read a few verses further down, weíd see that he sends his soldiers to kill the baby, and they donít get him only because Joseph has been warned and gets him out first. The magi react to Jesusí birth with a joy thatís as great as Herodís hatred. And the chief priests and scribes? These guardians of Godís Word see that Word fulfilled, but theyíre indifferent. They just donít seem to care. The thing is, they canít stay that way for long. Nobody can stay indifferent to Jesus forever. Itís an important theme in all the Gospels that people have to choose to be either for Jesus or against him. Those who try to sit on the fence end up choosing against him. If we were to read further on in the Gospel of Matthew, we would see that these chief priests and scribes become Jesusí enemies. We also have to choose either for Jesus or against him.

Another thing that we can say about this passage is that the magi seek Jesus, so they find him. I donít think we should underestimate the effort they would have had to put into this journey, either. The trip itself would have taken a couple of months, but before that would have come the planning. First they would have had to plan their route to Jerusalem from what is now Iraq (not a journey Iíd want to try to plan today). Then they would have had to buy enough food for themselves and the servants who probably accompanied them, and enough of a different kind of food for the camels. And, of course, water for everyone, lots of it. Maybe we shouldnít complain about having to worry about passports, visas, and airport security! Anyway, the magi looked for Jesus, so they found him. And thatís still true. If we look for him, weíll find him, because he wants us to find him. Jer. 29:13-14 says, ďYou will seek me and find me; when you search for me with all your heart, I will be found by you, says the Lord.Ē God loves you, and he wants to have an intimate personal relationship with you. Heís waiting for you to come to him, and thereís no need to think you have to clean yourself up first. Cleaning us up is his job. Ours is to come to him in faith and trust. Heíll do the rest.

In verse 11 the magi give Jesus gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Now these are expensive gifts, worthy of a king. But is there any deeper significance to them? Gold represents Jesusí kingship. I wonder what the magi thought when they found the King of the Jews in a simple house instead of a palace. Iím sure that wasnít what they were expecting. But Jesus did many things that people werenít expecting him to do. And he isnít just the King of the Jews, heís the King of all who believe in him. And he came into his kingdom not by sitting on a throne but by hanging on a cross. Thatís why some parts of the church call him ďthe King who reigns from the wood.Ē Itís easy for us to think of Jesus as the Saviour and Friend who helps us. And so he is. But we wonít have the abundant, blessed life in Christ that we should have if he isnít our Lord as well as our Saviour. Before we can have the benefits of his friendship we must submit to him as Lord and King. Godís blessings come to those who obey him, and we must note how the magi obey Godís prompting to seek Jesus.

The magiís second gift is frankincense. Frankincense, or incense, was burned every day as an offering to God by the priests in the Temple. So frankincense represents Jesusí deity. He is God made flesh, fully divine as well as fully human. Their third gift is myrrh. Myrrh was used to anoint the bodies of the dead. So the magiís gift of myrrh refers to Jesusí suffering and death. Even as we read about his birth weíre reminded of his death on the cross for our sins. This is right, because thatís why he was born. He came to earth to pay the penalty for our sins because we couldnít pay it. So itís right to think about Easter at Christmastime, because Christmas would have no significance if it werenít for what happened at Easter.

Finally we must note the sovereignty of God in this passage. Weíve already seen how Jesusí birth in Bethlehem fulfils Micah 5:2. And the coming of the magi is the beginning of the fulfillment of Godís promise to Abraham in Gen 12:3 that through Abraham all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The fulfillment of prophecy shows that God is in charge, and he carries out his plan. His dream-warning to the magi delays the arrival of Herodís soldiers until Joseph gets Jesus away, which shows that God is able to block any human attempt to oppose that plan.

The magiís journey ends with them going home to their own country. Our journey through this passage ends here, and we also have to go home. After the buildup and excitement of Christmas, itís back to the old routine. But thereís a sense in which we can carry the joy of Christmas with us all year long. Matthew, who tells the story of the magi, also tells us that one of the names foretold for Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. Matthew begins his Gospel like that, and ends it with Jesus saying, ďI am with you always, even to the close of the ageĒ (Matt. 28:20). I donít think thatís a coincidence. Jesus is with us, in the joyóand, letís be honest, the stressóof Christmas, and in the February blahs. Perhaps they wonít seem quite so blah if we remember that the Jesus of Christmas is with us always, even in February. Let me close by quoting the last verse of that Christmas carol that I mentioned the beginning of at the beginning of my message.

Glorious now behold him arise
King and God and Sacrifice
Alleluia, alleluia
Earth to the heavens replies.
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
(J.H. Hopkins, 1820-91)