Matthew 2: 1-12
If you ask a child what their favourite thing about this time of year is, more often than not you’ll be told, “Opening presents under the tree”. Really, who can blame them? I’m approaching the early-mid-forties and I still get excited to find what those gift wrapped packages hold for me. It’s like a humming bird attracted to a brightly coloured flower to search its depths to find the hidden nectar. Instead it’s the bright colour of the paper and ribbon and the humming is in the tune of a Christmas carol. I still remember one Christmas though when I carefully examined each and every parcel that bore my name. I shook, squeezed, poked and even smelled every one until I was sure I had figured out what every one was. When Christmas morning came, I found that I was right about every one. My investigations had proven one hundred percent accurate but I found I’d made only one error; I had spoiled all the fun I should have had that morning. While I watched my brother tear into his presents in a frenzy to find the hidden surprise, I felt no excitement because all the mysteries had been solved. What I failed to realize, beyond the excitement of new gifts, was the value of the surprise.
The Christmas season is known for surprises and the first Christmas was no exception. This part of the Christian story ends with the arrival of three men from a foreign land who came bearing gifts. They had heard the stories of the coming king and had gone in search of his birth. These stories had been told for centuries throughout Jewish communities. There would come a saviour, a Messiah that would rebuild the Kingdom of David, free the people of Israel and rule with justice and compassion forever. These three men that came were foreign scholars and astronomers that came to see if the Jewish prophesies had in fact come true. They listened to the stories, studied the stars and made way for Jerusalem. As they approached the city, a bright star shone down a light that led them to the exact place the miracle had taken place. What they found though, would have been quite a surprise.
If I were to go and look for a king, I think I would start by looking in a palace. If it were the birth of this new, long expected leader, there would of course be a team of doctors and nurses on hand, all ready to help if there were any complications with the delivery. There would be a nursery with a gilded crib, all the toys and child would ever want and nannies to see to every need and desire of the baby. The exact location would be obvious, just listen for the trumpets playing joyous fanfares, calling the world to the celebration of the wondrous birth. This is what any person could reasonably expect, but throughout Jesus’ life we learn to let go of reasonable expectations.
When the wise men arrived, peeked in the door, and saw a baby lying in a feeding trough, I’ll bet they took a few minutes to re-examine their calculations, maps and the batteries of their GPS to see if they were in the right place. I’m sure they were quite surprised to find the scene they did. How could this humble setting be the birthplace for the saviour of the world? Even with the unexpected nature of this birth, the Magi had faith that this was the baby they had been searching for and presented their gifts.
Who were these men who brought such extravagant gifts? Matthew has hidden a few surprises with the wise men for us to unwrap but for it to be revealed, we need to know a bit more about the church Matthew was helping to lead. At the time this Gospel was written, there was quite a bit of division within the communities of the early church. There were some that wanted to take Jesus’ message to other parts of the world, to share the good news. Paul had spent much time in Greece, establishing the church but by doing so, upset many other Christians. Many of Jesus’ followers believed that his message was meant for the Jews and it shouldn’t be spread to others where the traditions and beliefs were different. Matthew saw this conflict growing and included a message within the Christmas story to address it; a message contained in the identity of the magi.
In reality, we have no idea who these wise ones were, there may have been three, or maybe there were ten. They could have been kings, magi, or as Luke says in his Gospel, shepherds. Even with this lack of certainty, Matthew’s description is important, not for historical accuracy but instead, what their identity means for Christ’s church. These men were referred to as magi. Magi were people who saw signs in the stars and foretold the future according to what they saw. They would therefore not be respected by Jewish leaders who held no value in such ideas. They believed that the future was determined by God and revealed through the prophets with nothing to do with astrology.
Matthew has them coming from a foreign land and are therefore not Jewish. Why would gentiles want to present extravagant gifts to the King of the Jews?
Mathew was revealing the greatest Christmas surprise of all; who Jesus was and who his message was for. Was Jesus born to be a mighty ruler as the Israelite prophets foretold? Not exactly: his message was powerful but this was a might that was different from other kings. Instead of military power, Jesus was the shepherd king, leading all humanity to a life with God; setting a path for us to follow based on love for God and each other.
Was he only speaking to the Jewish people? No, this was a message of such great importance that it had to go to Greece with Paul and then to the rest of the world. It wasn’t a message to be given only to good, respected citizens; Jesus spoke wisdom for all people; priests, shepherds, Jew and gentile, tax collectors and magi. In the same way the light from that star led people to the manger, Christ’s light led those around him and still leads us today.
Whether the light from that star was to guide shepherds or magi, what is important for us is that the guiding light calls all of us to bring our gifts to the manger. It doesn’t matter who we are, or where we come from. It doesn’t even matter what gift we bring, as long as we allow that light to guide us through our lives. As long as we reflect that light so that we can guide those around us, guiding all of God’s children to a life where God’s love is felt.