The Hope of the Magi
Passage: Matthew 2:1–2:12
 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,  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.”  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;  and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:  “‘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 shepherd my people Israel.’”  Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.  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.”  After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.  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.  And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (ESV)
As we prepare to walk through this passage, I want to try and retell this story in modern day terms. I think that the story of the Magi has some extremely important dimensions that are scarcely looked at or spoken of as they should be, especially for 2020. Let’s begin:
Imagine that you are told that Jesus has arrived in our nation. Where would you expect him to go to set up as this “base” for ministry? Where would you hope to find King Jesus as his arrival is officially announced? I want you to seriously consider that question, and please take note of your answer, and be honest with yourself.
Secondly – imagine that his actual followers were the ones announcing to everyone else a special revelation that he had indeed come. Who would you expect these followers to be? Or, who would you hope these followers would be?
The answer to these two questions may tell you a lot about your own understandings of who Jesus is, and who his church is. If you have a scratch pad, scribble down your answers and hold on to them, as we will revisit them at the end of our time today.
For some of you this morning, you will find yourself greatly challenged by what we see in this passage, and I can only encourage all of you: let this story breathe out its details, and let it confront you. Because it’s going to confront you, and it’s going to challenge some of your most basic understandings of Christianity. I’m going to directly also challenge many pastors and Christians speaking some crazy messages out there today, messages that probably many of you have heard, maybe some of you have embraced. I know I’m new here, but I’m going to really push you guys this morning, because I understand this to be my role here – to give you Jesus as he really was, and as he really is, and let that raw and unfiltered story do its own work in your heart. Let’s dive in:
 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,  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.”
Matthew wastes no time in jumping into this wild story. As we begin we need to take note of at least three details that we are given in chronological order:
- Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the days of Herod the King.
- Magi from the east came to Herod the King to JERUSALEM, not Bethlehem
- They were following a star that they claimed belong to a new King of the Jews who was just born, and they came to worship this new King.
Let’s start with Bethlehem. Jesus, the Savior of the World, was born in Bethlehem. Now for us today, Bethlehem feels important. But for those living in Israel during the first century, it would be like Dawsonville, Georgia to NASCAR fans of the 80s and 90s. It’s a tiny town that has no significance other than being the birthplace of a now antiquated famous NASCAR driver named Bill Elliot who peaked in the 80s and 90s. It’s about the only thing that Dawsonville Georgia has going for it today.
That’s Bethlehem, as King David was born there about 1,000 years prior to Jesus’ birth - That’s the only thing going for it. Archeologists think that the Bethlehem of Jesus’ day was about the same size as a Walmart parking lot. However, for this little town, if you were a very careful reader of the Jewish Scriptures, you may be quietly expecting something more from this shabby little town. We’ll see that in a moment.
Secondly, the Magi showed up to Jerusalem, even though it said that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. And here is where we learn of the first details of our strange and mysterious visitors. They got one thing right – the King of the Jews had indeed been born! And, logically speaking, they went to the famous royal urban city where all the Kings of Israel were born, lived, died and were buried in Israel’s past: Jerusalem. They went looking for a newborn King in Jerusalem. Maybe they were expecting – and just maybe hoping – for a political King to rule and reign in Jerusalem once again.
Thirdly, as these foreigners showed up in the wrong place looking for this King – who in the world were they, anyhow? The ESV’s “wise” men is a bit more traditionally interpreted, it should literally read “Magi.” The Magi was a well known profession in eastern nations of the time whose trained adherents were known for their ability to read, understand, and interpret signs and constellations found in the sky. These Magi were, generally speaking, from the Arabian area, possibly ancient Persians or Iranians, we don’t know precisely. But what we do know is that these were most unexpected visitors showing up in Judea, in Jerusalem, looking for a newborn Jewish king. Even more bizarre was that they were following a star – apparently a supernaturally moving star. We do not know exactly their religion – some think it was an ancient form of Zoroastrianism. But God had decided to use their own somewhat pagan methods of seeking signs in the stars of divine realities to reveal to them that the true King had been born – and by gauging the details of this story, we can guess that these Magi, upon their misdirected arrival in Jerusalem, might have been traveling one to two years. This would have been a very expensive journey, and it would have not involved only three Magi, but probably a much larger group.
And then, if we aren’t already bewildered by all of these strange details, in an almost humorous part of the story these foreigners show up in the royal city of Jerusalem, they seek the audience of the current reigning King – the tyrant King Herod the Great, and they ask, “hey, where’s the King of the Jews? He was just born. Did you just have a baby? We’re here to worship the King.” This is why Matthew calls Herod the King – he wants us to see this irony.
So let’s recollect the details:
- Jesus, King of the Jews and Savior of the World, was just born in Bethlehem, an insignificant Walmart parking lot-sized town with ancient cred of being King David’s birthplace.
- Eastern astrologers, possibly pagan or Zoroastrian, were following a star and they showed up in Jerusalem and approached the current king, asking where the new King is – but as we know, they were looking for Jesus in the wrong place.
So far, Isn’t this such a crazy story? I love it, there is no parallel in Scripture. Now let’s stop and address our two important questions we began with:
WHAT KIND OF KING ARE YOU HOPING FOR?
Where would you expect King Jesus to be if you were told he arrived in America? Apparently the Magi thought, logically, he would show up where Israel’s Kings had always shown up – in Jerusalem. This reveals that they were looking for a political King, with Kingly authority like David or any other powerful King we find in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. But they were wrong. They initially missed him because they were looking for him in what felt like the right place, but actually was the wrong place.
Friends, where are you looking for Jesus right now? So many in our nation are looking for Jesus in the wrong place. Like the Magi, so many Christians are looking for Jesus to show up in the Jerusalem of our nation – DC, the White House, and they imagine that this is where all of our prayers must be directed, where our hopes and longings must be directed – like the Magi, so many are hoping for Jesus’ Kingly authority, all over again, to be found and take root in the highest offices of our nation if we are to have hope. And I am seeing so many Christians staring at the White House, gathering in front of the White House – like the Magi, asking, “where’s our King? We need him here!”
Meanwhile, in a Walmart parking-lot sized small rural town, there’s our King. There’s King Jesus. He’s actually in Dawsonville, Georgia, it turns out, born down the street from where the famous NASCAR driver was born. He’s not in DC, after all!
Why? Because, friends, Jesus did not come to be that kind of King. If you hear anything this morning, listen to me now: he did not come to be that kind of KING. His Kingship is actually subverting these expectations! Our King let himself be born in a FEEDING trough, the day before his birth farm animals were literally eating out of the crib in which the infant Jesus would sleep, somewhere that no one in our nation would want their infant sleeping. You ever seen horses or sheep or goats eat? It’s gross, its sloppy, there’s lots of spit and bits of chewed food falling back out after they wildly munch on whatever gross food they are eating. It smells bad. And I wouldn’t want to put my infant in such a thing.
But THIS is our KING! And he’s trying to SHOW US that he is going to be a different kind of King, a King that will subvert the authority structures of this world by being the opposite of what we expect him to be. And we must allow this story of Jesus as told in all nations all over the world, wherever Christians are gathered – we must allow our values that we ascribe to our Christian life to be reflected of Jesus and his own story.
I know how I could grow Immanuel Church right now. You know how? I could start preaching, saying “let’s defy the government! Jesus wants us to be free! No masks in our church, we don’t let the government tell us what to do! Let’s have 800 people in this room on Christmas Eve, they can’t tell God’s church what to do, they have no authority over us!”
Such a message if spoken in our world in 2020 is claiming that Jesus really wasn’t born in Bethlehem, but rather Jerusalem, and from day one he was planning on how to take over the throne in Jerusalem to sit on it and overthrow the tyrannical Romans. It’s claiming that all the political revolutionaries who were living in Israel at the time were right, and he became their King and Jesus actually let Peter wield his sword on the night of his arrest in the Garden, and he said, “YES Peter it’s time to go to battle!” It’s claiming that he refused the crown of thorns and sought the crown of gold, its claiming that he refused the cross and sought the throne in the palace. Friends, that’s not our Jesus.
Jesus actually said, Peter, put down your sword. And he died in weakness, bearing the burden of our sin to reconcile us back to our Father. His resurrection once and for all shown that he CAME to reorder and recreate humanity with the sending of his Spirit on any and all who believe in him – to reorder them by love of God and neighbor through the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. This is the people-minded church, the ones focused on our neighbors, loving and caring for them.
It’s why the Christians around the world who are actually being killed for their faith, they commonly say to those who pray for their persecution to end, “NO! Don’t pray that. Rather pray that we will be faithful.” To pray as an American would be to have them rebel and fight back because Americans imagine Jesus to have died for our liberties and freedoms. To pray as a Christian however is to pray for their faithfulness to Jesus, the Great Commission, and to making disciples in a place that desperately needs it.
You see the difference of a Jesus born in Jerusalem, versus our Jesus who was born in Bethlehem? The message of the manger versus the message of the throne? The message of the humiliating crown of thorns versus the glorious crown of gold? I want the Bethlehem Jesus, I want the crucified Lord of glory! And thankfully this is his story that he desires to be ours.
Secondly, these Magi were not the expected target audience of this new King of the Jews. To begin with, they were not from Israel, not from Abraham’s physical family – they had no claim in Israel’s story. According to popular understanding, they did not belong prostrate before this Jewish King. Let’s take a look at what happened to those who did have such claim when they were told that these foreigners showed up, looking for the new King of the Jews. How did the expected audience respond? Let’s go to verse 3:
 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;  and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:  “‘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 shepherd my people Israel.’”  Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.  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.”
Herod, gathering his own “Magi,” if you will, knowing that he hasn’t had a child as of recent, and this mysterious group of eastern Magi looking for this new born King, knowing that ALL of Israel was looking for this Christ, he calls up the Bible scholars and says, “hey guys, where is the Messiah going to be born? Where’s the Christ going to be born?” They say, “oh that’s easy, there’s a prophecy given through the prophet Micah around 700 or so years ago, he’ll be born where David was born, in Bethlehem.”
Then Herod says, secretly to the wise men, “What time did this star appear to you guys? Around 2 years ago? OK thanks. Go and find the kid, he’s not here, he’s probably in Bethlehem, and when you do come back and let me know where he is so I can go and worship him too.”
The Bible scholars probably just got wind from Herod about the supposed news, and you’re telling me that the current King of Judea and the Bible scholars themselves – none of these people actually went to find the child. The Bible scholars did not go looking for him. Herod was looking for him – but as we know, to kill him. Simultaneously there were many various and actually diverse groups of Jews looking for the Messiah – Meanwhile, there’s Jesus, maybe a year or two old now, still in Bethlehem. Alone. While the nation rages in fear of Rome, in hot anticipation for the Messiah, there is Jesus, gathering no crowds from the ones you would expecting to be looking for him. Their eyes were everywhere else but Bethlehem. And now the unexpected Magi-astrologer-foreigners are among some of the first to arrive to worship this newborn child.
There’s something wrong with this picture, but something beautifully right, that once again is a hard message for us. Jesus was missed by almost all who were looking for him, almost all who were trying to exert their authority, and found by those you would never expect to find him. You know the kinds of people that actually responded to Jesus en masse during this ministry?
- The poor, the physically disabled, the sick, other foreigners in surrounding nations and from Roman cities, wicked people who were hated by most, women, who in those days were very much sidelined in the ancient culture and disregarded as much less than their male counterparts, and a bunch of regular ol’ rough and rowdy fishermen. Not the Bible scholars, not the Bible teachers, not the religious authorities, not the powerful – they were teaching different doctrines. The theme here is Jesus was born in an unexpected place, worshipped by unexpected people, shattering all of the expectations we would have had of the first grand entrance and response of the Son of God to this world.
The story continues,
”  After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.  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.”
This moment and even these gifts were foretold by the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 60, we read:
Isaiah 60:1–6  Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.  For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.  And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.  Lift up your eyes all around, and see; they all gather together, they come to you… They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD. (ESV)
When the Magi arrived, the star supernaturally leading them to the house where Jesus was, before they ever entered the home – BEFORE they ever saw the LORD Jesus, when they realized the star stopped and they found the house, they rejoiced. Now the Greek here ran out of words to describe their joy. It repeated itself over and over, and if it were literally translated into English would read something like “And they felt joy that was the most joyous joyful joy of the most joyful kind of joy!” They were probably dancing a jig in the streets, bending their knee, in tremendous joy, saying “We found him! We found him! We found him! The KING! After all of our journeys we’ve found him! We’ve found him! Get the gifts!” And when they came, before they even gave him the gifts, they fell down. The lie prostrate on the floor. They lay down before him in complete joy, worshipping him. And then they lay before him some of the most expensive and adorning gifts that I am sure Mary and Joseph, as poor as they were, ever received.
And this is where our time ends. This lies as a central part of the “origin” story of our King, Jesus. It’s a peculiar story, and it is a humble story. It is not an expected one, but much of it is very unexpected. And I firmly believe that, perhaps more than ever, we need to absorb what it is saying to us.
I return to the beginning of our sermon. You hear a rumor that Jesus showed up in America, and you wanted to go find him. Where would you hope he would arrive? And who would be found announcing his coming and be among his first followers?
I asked my daughter this question this morning, and you know what she said? “Daddy I think I’d probably find Jesus in the streets of the city, caring for the homeless person, and he’d be hard to find.” I think there’s truth in that. He would be ministering to the unexpected person, and the unexpected person would be responding. He would probably not be calling news crews to come and televise his teachings or to make sure that he gets them up on YouTube immediately. His whole ministry was marked by quiet love and care for people, only scarcely from time to time going toe to toe with other religious authorities.
Like the Magi, do you need to be redirected this morning? Do the eyes of your heart need to be directed once again to a humble and lowly Savior, born in Bethlehem, born in a manger?
Secondly, knowing the incredible expense of the Magi’s journey – what has your love of Christ actually cost you as of recent? Faith is expensive, and I’m not only talking about your money – although clearly the Magi gave A LOT of their money to Jesus and spent a LOT of money on their pilgrimage to meet him. But what has your faith cost you? What have you sacrificed for him? We worship a Savior who suffered, on a cross! Loving God and loving neighbor in the name of Jesus should be very expensive and costly. It demands your time, your money to help and serve others – and more importantly, it demands all of you. That’s the message of this first Advent, and here we will end.
Know that after this final song, we will have people available for prayer. If you need to grab someone to pray, our elders and other leaders will be available up front to pray with you. If Jesus has done a work in your heart this morning, don’t reject it – embrace it, face it! He wants all of you, and I pray we can give him all of that. We may also find ourselves prostrate before him with unspeakable joy. Let’s pray.