2 1-2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”
3-4 When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified—and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religion scholars in the city together and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
5-6 They told him, “Bethlehem, Judah territory. The prophet Micah wrote it plainly:
It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land,
no longer bringing up the rear.
From you will come the leader
who will shepherd-rule my people, my Israel.”
7-8 Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”
9-10 Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!
11 They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.
12 In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country. (The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson)
Note: I am grateful to the work of Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan who helped me flesh out this blog with their book “The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth. (New York, HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2007)
This is the conclusion of the Christmas story. John the Baptist has been born and a few months later Jesus was born. The angels announced the birth of the Christ child. Shepherds, the marginalized citizens, heard the announcement and paid homage. Time has passed, Jesus is not yet two years old. Wise men from the East arrive in Jerusalem.
“We’re looking for the newborn king of the Jews”. They couldn’t have done more damage if they’d dropped a bomb in the city center.
Why did Luke write about these scholars? What purpose do they have in the Christmas story?
One response is that these are the gentiles who first recognized the Messiah. Jesus came for all humanity, not just the Jews.
Another response points out the threat and the promise of this child. In Luke’s gospel, Mary sings about the greatness of this honor to bear the savior. “for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;” (Luke 1:49, 51 NRSV)
Later, when Mary and Joseph bring the baby to the temple for her purification, Simeon steps on the stage saying, “I can rest in peace. I’ve seen my heart’s desire: the Messiah.” The audience sighs with joy. But, Simeon isn’t done, yet. “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” (Luke 2:34b-35 NRSV)
Yes, the story shares with us that Jesus came for Jews and Gentiles. Yes, Jesus came to set things right and will stir things up. Is that all? Is this simply a nice conclusion to the Christmas story?
I suggest there’s more. I suggest that this is not a conclusion, but a sort of commencement. Like a high school or college commencement, this is an ending that points away from itself to something more important.
Whether they realize it or not, these wise men are pointing to a new kingdom. This kingdom is a singular and dangerous threat to the existing world.
The kingdom of the world is ruled by Caesar Augustus. According to Borg and Crossan, he was called Son of God, Lord and savior of the world. He was also considered the son of Apollo, the god of light. Therefore, Caesar was considered the Light of the World. He is worshiped as a god. He is the savior the people believe they need; the conqueror who brings peace.
Caesar appoints his minions and Herod is one of them. He is King of the Jews whose job it is to keep them in line. He keeps his throne only by the grace of Caesar. In truth he is an evil ruler who distorts the truth and even kills in order to hang on to that power. Read ahead a few verses and we discover that he has all baby boys under two years of age living in and around Bethlehem slaughtered, in an attempt to kill this new King of the Jews.
The wise men point to the birth of a new kingdom led by the King of the Jews, the Light of the World, Lord, and Savior of the World. Wait. That’s Caesar’s role. We can’t have two saviors, can we?
And now, this lovely, tender story points to a clash: the kingdom of Caesar and the kingdom of God.
The magi don’t conclude the Christmas story, they point us forward. And Luke’s gospel will continue to move us into the challenge of decision. We live in Caesar’s world. It’s easy to see and hard to understand. It’s complicated. There are no easy answers. A move in one direction creates havoc somewhere else. And sometimes we catch ourselves worshiping the wrong thing.
We also worship the Messiah while struggling to understand the Kingdom of God. This is the kingdom that tells us that if our hearts are saddened to the point of breaking over injustice and poverty, we’re blessed. That persecution brings blessing. That the Law of Moses is important and must be studied; not for the purpose of legalism or a threat, but going deeply in order to find God at the heart of it. And that God is like a father standing with his nose pressed up against the window pane, watching for his prodigal son to return and when he does, embarrasses everyone around him by running down the road to welcome him back.
This is the kingdom of God: upside down, backwards, inside out. It’s a kingdom I want to understand more fully.
The kingdom of this world has a lot going for it. I believe that God is at work in the world bringing in the kingdom. We see it in moments of grace. The kingdom of God is brought into the world every time a human being or a group of human beings stand up to the kingdom of Caesar and say, “We have a better way.” That’s what Desmond Tutu did in South Africa. It’s what you and I do on our best days when we stop a bully or assert justice.
All glory and honor be to God.