First Mennonite Church
December 13, 2015
Where is the King?
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
Christmas plays have made of this passage a familiar one, at least the most obvious part of the story. Every Christmas we have, with much delight, enjoyed watching our children bringing to life an integrated version of the birth story of Jesus. The presence of the magi in these plays brings about the most extravagant and colorful personalities of all the Nativity characters. The magi, in these plays, silently open their treasure boxes and offer their faux gold, aromatic frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus.
Luke’s birth story does not mention the magi’s visit to Mary and Joseph. Luke only mentions the birth’s announcement by an angel and the visit of the shepherds. Matthew is the only gospel writer who tells of the magi’s visit. Yet, Matthew’s timing for the birth of Jesus and the magi’s visit as taking place during Herod the Great’s reign, put the birth of Jesus a couple of years before the Common Era even started. That is because historians place the reign of Herod between 37-4BC.
Magi, are not kings, as often referred to. The idea that they were kings is based on a later Christian interpretation of passages such as Psalm 72 and Isaiah 60. Magi, Greek Magoi, literally magicians, are more like astrologers, wise men of a “priestly class of Persia or it can also refer to Babylonian experts in the occult, such as astrology and the interpretation of dreams.” They were pagans and although they did not have knowledge of the Old Testament prophesies regarding the coming Messiah, somehow they read signs of his birth while “observing his star.” They somehow realized a star as indicating the birth of a special child. A new king was born to the Jews. Thus, they set out to find the new born king and to worship him. And as they entered Jerusalem, they asked everyone, “Where is the new born king of the Jews?”
The Magi were looking for the New King in Jerusalem, the official religious center. Jerusalem, or Zion as it is referred to, is the city of God, the dwelling place of Yahweh. While pagan Gentiles astrologers had known the Messiah had been born, the experts and guardians of the Torah were oblivious to God’s timing and working. Christ, the new born King was born in the small town of Bethlehem, about 12 miles south of Jerusalem. Christ was not found in the busy city. He was not found among the celebrities, dignitaries or the pious men of Jerusalem. Where is the new born king of the Jews? The wise men were asking.
They were told where to go. And when they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The magi knew what they were looking for and knew when they had found it. The magi rejoiced and were overwhelmed with joy at the sight of the baby in his mother’s arms. They made reverence and worshipped the baby and offered him their gifts.
Biblical interpreters often see important symbolisms in these gifts. Gold is a precious metal fit for a king. Jesus is indeed King of kings. Frankincense oil is essential to perform religious rituals by the priests. Jesus Christ is God’s new and eternal high priest. And myrrh is used to embalm the dead, prefiguring Jesus’ sacrificial death. These three valuable elements are typical gifts offered to royalties and deities as mentioned in Isaiah 60:6.
What happened to the wise men after they offered their homage and gifts remain a mystery. Did they become believers in Yahweh after that? But whatever they did or become after their journey to see the Messiah, the very act of responding to a sign in the star and coming to offer their gifts and wordship to him
In this story there are elements of contradiction, amazement, and tragedy. The Old Testament makes it very clear how Yahweh detested the practice of astrology (Isaiah 47:13). In fact, many see the Creation Story of Genesis as counter narrative to the Babylonian religion based on astrology. Yahweh is Creator and Lord of all the universe including the astrological elements: the stars the moon, and the sun. Yet, somehow the magi found a star indicating something special. It was announcing the birth of a child, a child no less than a King—he is not a prince, but a King! As the magi carried out their profession, they observed the rising of his star. As pagan and as “sinful’ their practice of astrology was, according to the Hebrew religion, they discerned the birth of someone extremely special the guardians of the Hebrew religion although anticipating him did not know had come. They discovered a star indicating them of the birth of the Messiah, something proper of another religion, of another faith and God. And they were moved to embark on a long and arduous journey in search of the new born king.
The fact that the magi were able to find the Messiah, while practicing astrology can represent a troubling truth to the Christian church. We, the church, would like to think of ourselves as the guardian of the truth; as the only means by which the world can find Christ, God, and his salvation. I am sure Matthew was troubled too, to know that the magi found the Christ before the theologians in Jerusalem did. And they found him by doing something that according to their religion was abominable to Yahweh. The people of Israel had their own ideas as to how God should work in history and how his Messiah should come. But God confused them and worked in his sovereign way.
The words of the Lord in the mouth of the prophet Isaiah is true when the Lord said,
1“I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’ 2 All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations— 3 a people who continually provoke me to my very face, offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on altars of brick “ (65:1-3).
As we reflect on this story, let us remember that God is sovereign. His ways are not our ways and his thoughts higher than our thoughts! We cannot limit God. We cannot keep him in the little boxes of our definitions or expectations. How so very often we believe that our way of worship is the only right way? How so very often we believe that we have the only true interpretation of the Bible? The God who revealed himself to the magi can also manifest himself apart from us, the church. Yet, it is our call to reveal him to the world. God desires to manifest himself through each of us.
But this story, regardless of the beauty and gracefulness of God in leading these Gentiles to his Son, is also a story that led to tragedy. When Herod knew that there was a new born king of the Jews, he secretly inquired the experts about the place and time for birth of such a king. Herod lied about his desire to worship the new king. And when he found himself fooled by the magi for not coming back to inform him of the location of the new king, he unleashed his rage on the most vulnerable and innocent. Herod killed all the infants of Bethlehem. Herod became the archetype of those for whom power should be preserved at every cost. Herod could not fathom the idea of another king, even in the person of a defenseless baby. Herod was paranoid and along with them all who followed him. Herod was filled with fear and with him all Jerusalem. Herod saw a threat in every baby. And the best way to get rid of the threat was to kill every baby boy two and younger. He took a preemptive mortal action to preserve his power.
There is a lot of fear in the world today. Many are living in fear due to recent terrorist attacks. And because of fear some have difficulty seeing the image of God in others. Today there are those who see a guilty man in every black youth, or an illegal in every brown face, or a terrorist in every Muslim and their best way to get rid of them is to keep them away. This way of thinking and attitude resembles Herod’s, not the heart of the magi who traveled to a foreign land and to offer gifts and worship to a foreign king and God. And they did without fear; without prejudice.
To certain degree, there exists an ongoing massacre of infants today. Children, women and the elderly are the largest segment of society that pay the price of war. Young girls continue to suffer in places like India, Nigeria, Syria, and many Asian countries. But let us not go too far away. Here in the US, let us not forget how so many of our school children die due to gun violence. Yet, the Herods of our country would not do anything sensible to help prevent these massacres. And every voice that questions their inaction is a threat to them. Like Herod, the powerful offer their “though and prayers” to the victims’ families, but that too is a lie. What they care for is their power and to not discomfort or upset the hands that feed their power.
Matthew was not afraid to write down the actions of Herod, which to some degree was a denunciation of his evil and murderous actions. Matthew raised his voice (pen) and the church must too. We who are Mennonites and pacifist in our theology should raise our voices in denunciation of every of injustice, genocide or massacre. Jesus himself did it. He even called Herod a fox (Luke 13:32).
It seems like if the reality of that first Christmas continues today. Shortly after we celebrate, we mourn. Mary and Joseph did not mourn the death of the baby because they fled to Egypt. When Jesus calls us to welcome the stranger, he spoke out of experience. Today, many have to flee the Herods of their places of origin. While many rejoice of being welcomed, many mourn being rejected. Much of the human capacity to showing empathy is gained by experience. Sharing our bread happens more easily when others have shared their bread with us.
The question the magi asked was: Where is the new born king of the Jews? Let us ask ourselves, are we searching for this King, too? Or who is our king? To whom are we offering our gold, our worship and praise? The world has many kings and queens. And there are many who are after these kings and queens. People are offering not only their loyalty to these kings but also their gold. Some have brand names as their kings. Some celebrities, pop stars, career, family, technology, or simply their ego.
Christ Jesus is the King of kings. Christ Jesus is the Lord of lords. Let us bow before him in worship. Let us offer to him our heart, our treasure, and our loyalty. Let us open to him our heart. Let us open to him our heart as we also open it to others. Amen!
 M. Eugene Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Matthew & Mark, Vol. VIII, (Nashville, Abingdon Press) 1995. 145