The Light of the Nations

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 2:1-11

This child would be different, another kind of king altogether. This king would bring the reign of God into the world.

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 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 on earth.” So it is, and so it has been for 2,000 years.

In a way it seems incredible that this event should be marked and remembered by so many people, 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 an out-of-the-way corner of the world. Hardly anybody noticed; there weren’t any media present to record the event, no reporters, photographers, or 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 sky with their carols of praise. Then came the shepherds to see the newborn Savior in the stable. But later on, others came to worship the child too. Matthew tells us about them in the second chapter of his Gospel:

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 popular carol that is a bit misleading:

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, or the east. The word orient is literally “the place of the sun’s rising,” so it refers to anywhere that is to the east; in this case, to the east of Jerusalem.

The song’s second claim is that there were three magi, 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 which may or may not be true. And as for their being kings, the Bible doesn’t say anything about that. The fact is: our ideas about these mysterious visitors from the east owe a lot more to imagination and legend than they do to Scripture.

Over the centuries, Christian tradition has filled in all sorts of details about these wise men. 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 for the Christian faith, and their bones are preserved today at the cathedral of Cologne in Germany – or so it is claimed. All of this, of course, is simply legendary. But the legends do point to a real and important truth. The magi are the first-fruits of the gentiles. They represent all the different nations and races of humankind that would eventually come to worship the Lord Jesus just as they did in Bethlehem so long ago.

So what do we really know about them? Only what they were. They weren’t kings. We often call them the three 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 ancient Persia, present-day Iran. 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 sort, were a mixed bag, combining elements of medicine and magic, astrology and astronomy. Some were almost like scientists, students of ancient wisdom; others probably 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 idolatry, error and even black magic. And yet it was to such men that God chose to reveal the birth of his Son.

Two Truths

The story of the magis’ visit to Bethlehem illustrates two important truths for us. The first is a truth about God. The truth is this: that God is wonderfully 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 than we are. He is infinitely higher! So when he condescends to us, it means that he comes down to our level. He lowers himself to meet with us, and that is a wonderful thing! You see, God doesn’t make us struggle to reach him, as if he could. No, he lowers himself to us. This is demonstrated supremely in the central fact that God chose to come into our world as one of us as a human being. He stoops to become a man. In a wonderful passage the Bible says of Christ that:

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 lower yourself any more than that. Imagine what it must have taken for the God of the universe to make himself a tiny, helpless baby and enter the world! 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 cannot contain, made himself small enough to enter a woman’s womb and be born into the world.

And then he condescends even further. God accommodates himself to our capacity to understand him. He lowers himself in order to tell us about himself. He’s like a mother, someone has said, cooing to her infant in baby-talk in order to communicate her love the only way the child can grasp. That’s how God speaks to us, on our level in a way that we can grasp. God comes to people where they are, as they are, 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 he led them by a star. He continues to reach people in all sorts of strange places by all sorts of means that we wouldn’t expect him to use. He can reach out to anybody, to the followers of any religion (even to 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 isn’t necessarily through a sermon. It could 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. That’s the truth about God. God is condescending because he wants to communicate. He is the great communicator!

The second truth this story teaches is a truth about ourselves. The magi were gentiles. That’s obvious. They were not Jewish. Jesus was born, though, as they themselves noted, “the king of the Jews.” But his kingship was not intended for just one race or one tribe or one people. The blessings of Jesus’ reign – peace and joy and hope – are meant for everyone. No one group is God’s particular favorite. Jesus is the Light of the whole world. He’s the king of all the nations. And the magi represent a sort of preview of all the different nations who have come and who continue to come in faith and worship and bow before the Lord Christ Jesus.

Why did they come? What drew them on? Yes, they must have been curious. They were intrigued by the supernatural star that they saw. But imagine the time and effort their journey cost them; think of the obstacles in their way, the hunger and thirst, the fatigue, the cost, and the danger. And still they persisted in their search.

Why? It wasn’t for ambition or a 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 – after all, there must have been plenty of those living closer to home in Persia!

It was something different that attracted them, something that gave them cause to hope. This child would be different, another kind of king altogether. 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 the magi sensed some of that; maybe they saw it in the stars. It gave them hope, and hope drew them on, and faith gave them strength to continue.

Think of it. No Bible, no prophets, no Temple, no long history with God, just a hint from the heavens, and 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 finally the King whom they were expecting and it was just a little baby on a poor mother’s lap in a humble village house. 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 carried 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 the Christ child wants from you. If the magi, with so little to go on, could give Christ the worship of heart and treasure, cannot you and I, with so much more knowledge and understanding, do so as well?