The year was probably 5 or 6 BC and Jesus wouldn’t be born for another year or so.
That means Christ was born no later than 4 BC, four years “Before Christ. That doesn’t sound right, but it’s true. Thanks to modern scholarship, we now know with a fair amount of confidence, that King Herod died in 4 BC and that means Jesus would have been born sometime before that. Of course, don’t worry! This doesn’t contradict scripture. Our BC/AD calendar wasn’t developed until 500 years after Christ by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus who was trying to establish a Christian calendar to replace the thoroughly pagan calendar of the Romans. I guess Dionysius was off by a few years.
As I was saying, the year was probably 5 or 6 BC. A star had risen in the ruddy morning sky of the east. It was a very different kind of star, a miraculous star. Only a few people at the time seemed to pay it any mind or give it any notice, and all of the attempts over the past twenty centuries to explain away this mysterious heavenly light by ascribing it to some unusual clustering of planets or some heavenly comet shooting through the heavens have limped lamely along without much credibility. Indeed, no naturalistic explanation can account for the precise movements, the paranormal guiding qualities, and the sudden appearances of this star.
This star was a miracle. Period.
But to the strangest and unlikely people, this star signaled something truly amazing–the birth of the long-awaited king of God’s people—the Messiah. I say “unlikely people” because these people were Magi.
Now, I know, I know… you’ve grown up referring to them as “wise men.” We all did. Your bible probably uses that term, too. But trust me, that’s a very odd designation for these individuals. One thing is for certain, Matthew doesn’t call them wise men; he calls them Magi. That’s the Greek word used here. And Magi were not the kind of people you would have ever dreamed would come looking for the Messiah of God’s people.
The fact that they did is also a miracle. Period.
Only God does miracles. Therefore all of this was God’s doing.
But it gets even more astonishing when you realize that in English we get the words “magic” and “magician” from the Greek word Magi. That’s a good clue to the kind of men these so-called “wise-men” were. Magi were the magicians, sorcerers and wizards of the ancient world. They dabbled in black magic and satanic arts. We meet them several times in the Old Testament. For example, in the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar, after having a troubling dream, calls all the magi and seers in the kingdom to interpret his dreams, but after their magic fails to provide the right interpretation, Daniel, guided by the Lord, is able to speak the truth. It’s for this reason that the Magi of Babylon then conspire to have Daniel thrown into the lion’s den.
Or let’s go all the way back to the books of Genesis and Exodus. Remember Jacob’s youngest son, Joseph? He was sold into slavery by his older brothers and was taken to Egypt. There he eventually wound up in the service of the Pharaoh. But God had big plans for Joseph and subsequently gave him the ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph is able to do what none of Pharaoh’s wise men are able to do. And so, Joseph is elevated in position and prestige to second-in-command under Pharoah.
Then, again, hundreds of years later, long after Egypt had forgotten Joseph and who his people were, the sitting Pharaoh enslaves God’s people. He makes them suffer terribly. In Exodus 3, God raises up a savior-outlaw named Moses and calls him to confront Pharaoh and demand he let God’s people go free. Moses provides signs and wonders to convince Pharaoh of God’s power and then dramatically throws down his staff and it becomes a serpent. Wow! But Pharaoh is not phased at all. He summons his own sorcerers (wise men/magi) and through their black magic, they channel the power of demons and also make serpents of their staffs.
It’s all very dramatic.
But you see the point I’m making, don’t you?
Again and again, these magi-types throughout the scriptures are always conspiring and contending against God’s chosen ones. They are the stereotypical bad guys. You’d expect them to show up wanting to hunt down and kill the Messiah rather than worship Him. You’d expect them to work with the likes of evil King Herod rather than against him.
It’s no wonder Matthew reports that all of Jerusalem was troubled by the sudden appearance of these Magi who suddenly appear and ask, “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.”
While I’ve always wished that Matthew would have given us more information about these mysterious men, I think Matthew very intentionally leaves out all that detail stuff about magi and their magic. Matthew doesn’t want to distract us. He wants us to see that this whole account–from Christ’s birth to the visit of the Magi and everything that follows–smacks of God’s work. Matthew wants us to behold the miracle amidst this strange occurrence. Only God could orchestrate something so strange.
And because our minds reverberate with echoes of this story from many Christmases past, we know that the details that rightfully should be supplied come not from scholarship, history or archeology but from the Gospel of Luke, where we remember that other strange people were also made to be the first recipients of the good news of the Messiah’s birth. Luke records how angels appeared to dirty shepherds and invited them to be the first to behold God in the Flesh.
So, rather than try to explain how it all could happen, I think Matthew’s point is to help us marvel that it did happen, at all! And then we look at the world around us and we can find instances, too, where God has brought the most unlikely people and revealed to them the truth about Jesus–people that you and I sometimes too easily assume will never listen and never care about the Gospel, but then, suddenly and strangely, they hear and see the truth and find comfort and joy in the same Savior and Lord that we worship. It always seems so miraculous when that happens. IT IS!
I’ll never forget a woman named Katrina. She showed up one Sunday morning at my last congregation with pink hair and tattoos up and down her arms. She wanted to know more about Jesus. In the months that followed, She came to bible study weekly. She went through our new-member class. She joined the church. I think it all came as a big surprise to that very historic, small-town, rural, and thoroughly German congregation–a pleasant surprise! But like the Magi, Katrina didn’t stay long. Maybe she felt out of place. Maybe she was looking for answers we couldn’t provide. Maybe we didn’t do enough to help her fit in. I only hope that she found what she was looking for. I hope she remained a believer in Christ.
But that’s all we can say about the Magi, too. We don’t know what became of them. Matthew doesn’t tell us the rest of their story.
Like Katrina, who had come into our midst to remind us that God alone does the work of bringing people to faith, so also the Magi show up in the Christmas story. There is no natural explanation for how they came to make a journey that might have been as much a 1000 miles (if they really did come from Babylon as some scholars think). They were led by a light that God provided to help them see the truth.
May God also remind us of the same. He alone helps us see. He alone enables us to believe. Faith is a gift, not a decision. Faith is always a miracle and miracles happen every day even amongst the most unlikely people.