Pretty much everyone outside of the 10-40 window knows what a nativity looks like. In the middle is baby Jesus, laying in an unusually sanitary manger. Next to Him kneels Mary, looking awfully good for a woman who's just given birth. Joseph is usually kneeling next to her. Sheep, donkeys, cows and camels observe the family scene with quiet fascination. Shepherds observe from near the entrance of the stable. An angel or two blesses the family from above while the star of Bethlehem shines overhead. All of these are very plain. Angels typically wear white. The humand wear the clothes of blue-collar working people. The animals, of course, wear nothing. The manger and the stable are strangely clean, but otherwise not much to look at. What really catches the eye in any nativity scene are six figures. The three wise men and their camels.
A number of people, my dear friend Pastor Larry included, insist that the wise men shouldn't be included in the nativity because by the time they arrived, Joseph and his family were in a house. He was in charge of the town nativity one year. He had the wise men outside the stable, showing that they were still on their way. We had to tie them up with ropes to keep them from blowing over. They didn't look too kingly, then. But the time of the arrival of the magi isn't all that important. When we depict the nativity, we are compressing everything that surrounded Jesus' birth into a single image. The magi belong in this image because they themselves are an important sign of Christ.
when we talk about the magi, we usually talk about the gifts that they brought. Gold, frankinscence and myrrh, as depicted on the bulletin cover. This is appropriate. Each signifies a role of the Christ: king, God and sacrifice. It's good to be reminded of this object lesson, which is why I have included these images on the bulletin. But since this is the message we usually get, I'd like to break from tradition and talk about the magi themselves.
"Magi" is the plural of "magus", from which we get the word "mage". The magi were the "royal smart people" and often did include such individuals as wizards, astrologers, mediums and Madame Cleo. As these people were directed by God, it is more likely that they were scientists. Magi, like President Daniel, held positions of power and were advisors to the king. They were called wise men because hopefully, their vast intellects were accompanied by sufficient wisdom to advise their king well.
In the most popular song about the magi, they are referred to as three kings. This is not entirely wrong. In and around the old testament eras, those representing the king were often adressed as if they were the king. This included ambassadors, generals, and sometimes even cabinet members. Joseph (Not Jesus' father but the one with the coat) was called Pharao of Egypt even though he was under the actual pharao. While today, we reserve the titles of king, president and prime minister for their actual owners, an ambassador carries with him all of the authority of the president. (or king, or prime minister) Only the actual president (etc.) can override them.
We don't know a lot about the magi. Traditon gives their names as Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior, each representing a different country. It is highly unlikely, however, that there were only three of them. Ethiopians claim their own three wise men, Armenia theirs, and China has records which may include the astronomer Liu Shang among the magi. But however many magi there actually were, whether three or hundreds, they did not travel alone. Such big, important people invariably travelled with a large caravan.
Imagine you're a first century Bethlehemite. You're sitting quietly in your house having dinner and listening to the wife complain about the mess made by all the people coming in for the census while your brother-in-law argues about how good it is for the economy. The kids are playing with their Hannukah toys, fighting over which one owns the Samson action figure and which one has to settle for Ehud. Wanting a moment of quiet, you step out onto the porch and breathe the night air. Seconds later, a small army comes walking up the street with finely dressed arabs leading the procession. The first thing that goes through your mind, naturally, is "What the heck is going on?"
The magi got the attention of a lot of people, not the least of which was Herod.
So in the magi, we find several key roles. They were representatives of their countries and kings, they were royal smart people and they served to call attention to Christ. In them, we can see several aspects of the nature of Christ mirrored.
Jesus is the representative of God the Father. He is God, in every way, but He did not come representing Himself. He came as an emissary of God the Father. As the magi came from distant lands and returned again, so Jesus came from Heaven, and when His work was done, He returned again. It is not at all inappropriate to call Jesus by His father's titles. Isaiah called Him "Mighty God" and "Everlasting Father". He also calls Him "Counselor", a title normally reserved for the Holy Spirit. He is the embodiment of everything that the other two members of the Godhead are. As Emmanuel, He is indeed God with us.
Jesus is also a "royal smart person". He has worked closely with the Father since the dawn of history. Jesus himself was intimately involved in creation. Even now, He acts as our representative, pleading as our advocate with Jehovah the judge. In terms of wisdom, we can personally benefit in immense ways. Jesus served as our great teacher, our living example and our guide. You have heard me speak many times about following Jesus in word, deed and intent.
Finally, as the magi served to call attention to the Christ, so too, Jesus serves to call attention to the Father. Herod sought to follow the magi to Jesus. He was prevented from doing this because his reasons were selfish and malicious. No one is kept from following Jesus to Jehovah. Anyone who wakes up this side of the dirt is free to seek God, and if his intentions are pure, Jesus will come and take him the rest of the way.
The magi have one last lesson to teach us which relates strongly to the last paragraph. Although they may not have understod consciously exactly what Jesus was, their gifts proclaimed Him as king, God and sacrifice. It is my belief that they did unbderstand He was God, because they worshipped Him. Because of this, they were accepted by God and today are counted among our most honored saints. So too must we honor Jesus as king, God and sacrifice, offering our obedience, recognizing Him as holy and accepting the atonement which He made for our sin as our own personal ransom. Anyone who prays and acknowledges these three things will be saved from Hell to live forever in God's love. If anyone reading this sermon has not done so, I encourage you to do so today. For the rest of you, this is an excellent object lesson when it comes time to share the gospel with your neighbor. Keep it handy within your memory.
Today's reading: Matthew 2:1-12
2:1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.