The Light of the Nations

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 2:1-12

Jesus Christ is the Light of the nations, and the nations are coming to him. In fact, in a sense, they even came at his birth.

It’s Christmas again, and all over the world, hundreds of millions of people are doing exactly the same thing: celebrating the birth of the Christ-child. Amidst the splendor of stained glass and stone in a European cathedral, under a thatched roof in the African bush, within the walls of a humble house in a Chinese village, across the length and breadth of North and South America, in huge churches and tiny chapels alike – everywhere the spirit is the same. The same story is retold, a story about a stable and a baby in a manger, and angels appearing to shepherds, and wisemen journeying from afar to worship the new-born king. The same song is lifted to heaven: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to [those] on whom his favor rests.” So it is this day, and so it has been for century upon century.

In a way it seems incredible that this should be marked and remembered by a third of the world’s people as the central event of history, for nothing could have been more obscure than what happened on the first Christmas. Think about it – a poor peasant girl gives birth to a baby one night in a dirty little corner of the world. Hardly anybody noticed; there weren’t any media present to record the event, no reporters, photographers, cameras. And if there had been, who would even have paid attention? Would any journalist have left his comfortable Jerusalem hotel that night to run down a lead in Bethlehem? Yet that’s where the event that changed the world took place, and we rejoice in it and remember it still.

The first to celebrate were the angels, the heavenly host who lit up Bethlehem’s midnight skies with their carols of praise. They told a group of shepherds who were tending their flocks out on the hillsides around the village, and these men came to see the newborn Savior in the stable. But later on, others came to worship the child too. Matthew, the Gospel writer, tells us about them in the second chapter of his book:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” . . .

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written. . . .

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the East went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.

Matthew 2:1-11, NIV

WE THREE KINGS?

Who were these strangers who came to do homage to the King of the Jews? What does their visit signify? Christians sing about them in a beloved Christmas carol that, we must admit, is misleading at best:

“We three kings of Orient are:

Bearing gifts we traverse afar.”

The first line of that song makes three claims about the magi, and of the three only one is certainly true: They were from the Orient, that is, the east; though even that’s a little misleading, because to many the “Orient” suggests China or Japan. The word orient is literally “the place of the sun’s rising,” so it refers to anyplace to the east, in this case, to the east of Jerusalem. But how many magi were there? We assume there were three of them, and that’s the way they’re always depicted in the Nativity scenes, but Matthew doesn’t say anything about their number. He mentions three gifts, but to assign one man per gift is to make an assumption for which there is no evidence. The Bible doesn’t say they were kings at all, despite the fact that they’re often shown with crowns. The truth is, our ideas about these mysterious visitors owe a lot more to imagination and legend than to Scripture. In fact, over the centuries, Christian tradition described these wisemen with remarkable detail. They were given names: Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. One was 20, one 40, one 60; one was white, one was black, and one was brown. It was said that the apostle Thomas found them many years later living in India and baptized all three; eventually they were martyred, and their bones even preserved at the cathedral of Cologne in Germany. Well, that’s all completely legendary, but the instincts behind the legends were sound because these visitors in a sense represent all the different nations and races of humanity that would eventually come to worship the Lord Jesus.

Now what do we know about them for real? Well, we can begin with what they were. They weren’t kings. We often call them the wisemen, because that’s the name the King James Bible used for them, but most modern translations use the Greek term magi, from which the English word magician comes. Magi were priest-sages who most commonly came from. Such men were skilled in the study of the stars and the movements of the heavenly bodies, in the interpretation of dreams and other secret arts. Magi, in short, were a mixed group, combining elements of medicine and magic, astrology and astronomy. Some were almost like scientists, students of ancient wisdom; others were more like magicians who dealt in the dark business of the occult. So they represent both the best and the worst of the ancient world: learned and noble, but also pagans whose religion was filled with superstition, error and idolatry. And it was to these men that God chose to reveal himself.

TWO TRUTHS

The visit of the magi to worship Jesus in Bethlehem illustrates two important truths. The first is a truth about God: that he is condescending. That’s a word that often carries a negative connotation. It offends us when people who think they’re better than we are behave in a condescending manner toward us. But God truly is better and higher – infinitely so! When he condescends to us, comes down to our level to meet with us, it’s a wonderful thing! You see, God doesn’t make us struggle to reach him; he lowers himself to us. This is demonstrated supremely in the central fact that God chose to enter our world as a human. He stoops to become a man. Christ Jesus was one:

who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross

Philippians 2:6-8, RSV

You can’t humble yourself any more than that. Imagine what it took for the God of the universe to be born as a tiny, helpless baby! I love these lines from the poet John Donne:

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,

Now leaves his well-beloved imprisonment.

There he hath made himself to his intent

Weak enough, now into our world to come. . . .

– John Donne, La Corona

Think of that! The infinite God, whom time and space can’t contain, made himself small and weak enough to enter a woman’s womb and be born into the world.

And then he accommodates himself still further, lowering himself to our capacity in order to tell us about it. He’s like a mother, cooing to her infant in baby-talk to communicate her love the only way the child can grasp. God comes to people as they are, on whatever level they’re actually living, using whatever means they can understand, to make himself known to them. The magi understood the heavens, so the Lord spoke to them in their own idiom, and led them by a star. He reaches people in all sorts of strange places and by all sorts of means that we wouldn’t expect him to use. He can reach out to the followers of any religion (including nominal Christians), or to people with no religion at all, and bring them to the Lord Jesus. He can make himself known to you by attracting your attention to himself somehow. It doesn’t have to be in church. It can be anywhere, on the street, in your job, through an event, or a song, or another person. He’ll spark an interest in Jesus, and then he’ll lead you to his Word, the way he led the wisemen to the Bible, where you can meet him and come to know him personally. God is condescending.

The second truth this story teaches is a truth about ourselves. The magi were gentiles (non-Jews). Jesus was born, as they themselves said, the king of the Jews. But his kingship was not intended just for one race or one tribe or one people. The blessings of his reign – peace and joy and hope – are meant for everyone. No one people is God’s particular favorite. Jesus is the Light of the whole world, and the magi represent a sort of firstfruits of the nations who have come, and who continue to come, to Christ Jesus.

Why did they come? What drew them on? Yes, they were curious. They were intrigued by the star. But imagine the time and effort their journey cost them; think of the obstacles in their way, the hunger and thirst, the fatigue, the danger. And still they persisted in their search. Why? It wasn’t for ambition or desire for gain. “We saw his star in the east,” they said, “and have come to worship him” (v. 2). I don’t think they would have gone to all that trouble just to honor another earthly prince – there were plenty of those living closer to their home.

It was something different that attracted them, something that gave them cause to hope. This child would be different. This king would bring the reign of God into the world. His name would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” and of his government there would be no end (see Is. 9:6-7). Somehow they sensed this; maybe they saw it in the stars. It gave them hope, and hope drew them on, and faith gave them strength to continue.

No Bible, no prophets, no Temple, no long history with God, just a hint from the heavens, off they went, pressing onward through the weeks and across the miles. They went to worship Christ, even when Herod and the leaders of his own people showed no interest in doing so. They believed even when they saw that the King they were expecting was just a little baby on a poor mother’s lap in a humble village hut. There was no apparent greatness here, no obvious majesty, but still “they bowed down and worshiped him” and “they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts” (v. 11), gold and incense and myrrh, the choicest and most valuable treasures they possessed. But the real gift of the magi wasn’t contained in any box. It was the gift they gave as they knelt in glad and humble adoration. It was the gift of themselves, their love, their hearts, their lives. It was the same gift he wants from you. If they, with so little to go on, could give it, can’t you?