Our passage from Matthew this morning shows three very different responses to the birth of Jesus Christ.
First there were the Magi. Most likely they were astrologers from Babylon or Persia and therefore not Jewish. They were Gentiles whose worship would be seen as idolatrous to the Israelites. Yet God chose pagan foreigners as some of the first to pay homage to Jesus. After seeing a bright star in the sky signifying the birth of the new King, they followed it so they could pay homage and worship the newborn. All they had was this moving star to guide them, so to help them in their quest, they went to Jerusalem to ask if the King and religious leaders knew where they could find the newborn King. Unfortunately, they did not share in the Magi’s excitement and diligence in finding the infant Jesus.
King Herod was anything but excited to learn about the birth of Jesus. Matthew tells us he was frightened and all of Jerusalem with him. I went down a rabbit trail researching King Herod and although we all know he was a pretty bad dude, I was surprised to learn just how terrible of a person he was. Out of jealousy he had his own wife and two of his sons murdered. He knew that he was so unpopular that he ordered eight other officials to be killed at the time of his death to ensure there would be mourning. Luckily, after he died his soldiers did not carry out his wishes. Given that information it’s no surprise that Herod’s response to the news of Jesus’ birth was fear. He did not want to compete with another King. He wanted to be the only King for Israel and feared losing his power.
Next we have the scribes and chief priests who were all in cooperation with Herod. They also responded with fear to the birth of Jesus Christ as his presence threatened their authority and power over Jerusalem. Matthew describes the scribes as “scribes of the people.” They were not just secretaries, but were a professional class of experts in the religious/civil laws of the Bible and Jewish tradition. They were the ones who helped people understand God’s laws. The priests oversaw the worship and day-to-day operations of the Temple – which was the place to worship God. They, too, feared losing their power and authority.
Of these three groups one would think that those whose very calling was to help people understand who God is would be the ones who had the most joyful response to the news that the “King of the Jews” (ie “The Messiah”) was finally born! Instead, they, along with the corrupt and narcissistic King felt threatened, not comforted by the birth of the Messiah. They also didn’t insist on traveling with the Magi to see the baby King for themselves. They were frightened because with the presence of the Messiah their power over the masses would be lessened. Why would the common folk go to the temple priests and the scribes with their questions about God and how best to worship and follow him, when they could go the Messiah himself? The Messiah was a threat to their profession and standing in the community. This is ironic, as their entire calling was to serve the people, but instead they were self-serving and only worried about themselves.
The Magi are also the people of action in their response. They could have just stayed in their land and waited for someone else to report on the birth of the Messiah. But they knew they had to see him for themselves to pay homage and to worship him, even though they themselves were Gentiles, foreigners with no obligation to worship the Messiah of Israel. But it was a foreshadowing of what Isaiah wrote in our OT passage for today in Isaiah 60:3: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
Once again we are surprised by those who prove to be most faithful to God. The least likely of people, in this case, were the Magi, who were non-believing Gentiles that responded to Jesus with the greatest faithfulness.
When we lived in Wheaton, the neighbors to the right of us had a Buddhist shrine in their backyard. The neighbors to the left of us were affiliated with a big Christian international organization whose headquarters were in the area. Our Buddhist neighbors were the ones who brought us fresh baked bread when we first moved in and who without fail used their snowblower to clear our extra-long driveway, as well as the sidewalk for our entire block every single snowfall for the four years we lived there. Our Christian neighbors would comment on the state of our backyard and were pretty rude to us when they dropped off our Amazon packages that had been accidentally delivered to their doorstep.
It wasn’t until our Christian neighbors found out that I was a pastor and that Matt was teaching at Wheaton College (which is a Christian College) that their entire demeanor changed. They all of a sudden were much warmer, sharing with us how proud that their kids chose to attend Hope and Calvin. Whereas our Buddhist neighbors were kind to us from the second they met us. Much like our passage from Matthew, the non-Christians embodied Christ’s command to love our neighbors more than the actual Christians.
Before we judge King Herod and the religious leaders for not faithfully responding in the same way as the Magi, we need to do some self-reflection of our own.
If we’re honest, we, like King Herod and the religious leaders, fear giving up our power and autonomy. We are comfortable with how much we’ve let Jesus into our lives. We don’t want to be challenged. We want to be comfortable. That’s why we’re uncomfortable with letting Jesus come further into our lives. We find comfort in the familiar and the routines of our lives and our views on how our world should work, so if anything or anyone disrupts that, we perceive it as a threat. Even if that person is Jesus himself.
Many of us come into this sanctuary wanting simply to be comforted, but not challenged. Many want to come to worship to shut the rest of the world out. But we can’t do that because that’s not what God asks of us. That’s not who God is or how God operates, according to the God we read about in Scripture. We are called to go out into the world and be the hands and feet of Christ. That more often than not means getting our hands and feet dirty by going to uncomfortable places and being in relationships with people who we may not want anything to do with.
We believe in a God whose love is for all nations, not just one. We believe in a God who chooses to work in the least likely of people to lead us to Christ. People like the Magi who weren’t even believers and were foreigners whose customs and ways of life were alien to the Israelites. Yet they proved to be more faithful in their response to Jesus Christ than the religious leaders of Jerusalem.
As we begin a New Year, how will you respond to Jesus Christ? With faithful openness like the Magi? Or in fear of losing our comfort and power like the scribes and Temple priests?
George MacDonald, The Scottish author who had a profound effect on C.S. Lewis among others, once wrote a letter to his father about what he believed would be a great obstacle to his faith; that once he became a Christian he would no longer be able to appreciate beauty and the natural world.
Ultimately, his experience was quite the opposite. He writes:
“One of my greatest difficulties in consenting to think of religion was that I thought I should have to give up my beautiful thoughts & my love for the things God has made. But I find that the happiness springing from all things not in themselves sinful is much increased by religion. God is the God of the Beautiful, Religion the Love of the Beautiful, & Heaven the House of the Beautiful—nature is tenfold brighter in the sun of righteousness, and my love of nature is more intense since I became a Christian. . . . God has not given me such thoughts, & forbidden me to enjoy them. Will he not in them enable me to raise the voice of praise?”
When we overcome our fear of losing what brings us great comfort to follow Jesus more closely, we find that Jesus gives us even more meaning, and therefore a deeper appreciation, for all that is good in our lives. We will also find that in letting go of our fear we receive so much more than we thought possible.
But we first have to respond to Christ in the way the Magi did. With open hearts and minds. Putting our own agendas aside in order to go and worship the newborn King.