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  • Writer's pictureRev Kalantha Brewis

The Magi Visit Jesus

Looking at Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 2, verse 1-12

2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the east

came to Jerusalem,  2  asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we

observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.”  3  When King Herod heard

this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him,  4  and calling together all the chief priests

and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  5  They told

him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet:

6  ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,

for from you shall come a ruler

    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the

star had appeared.  Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for

the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him

homage.”  9  When they had heard the king, they set out, and there, ahead of them, went the

star that they had seen in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child

was.  10  When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  11  On

entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid

him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold,

frankincense, and myrrh.  12  And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they

left for their own country by another road.

We are told that wise me came from the east after Jesus had been born. Although we

traditionally imagine the shepherds and the kings both turning up at the manger together, perhaps because that way we can get all the characters from the story on the same Christmas card, that isn’t what the gospels describe. Whereas Luke describes a baby in a manger, Matthew describes a child in a house. It seems likely that at least a few months must have passed, and Mary, with her newborn, has not been compelled to make a journey with him straight away. It might also explain why Herod has all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two slaughtered “in accordance with the time he has learned from the Magi”. He’s not looking for a baby born the previous week.

Even though some time has passed, then, at the point where the Magi turn up, the news of the miraculous birth hasn’t yet made it down the road to the palaces of Jerusalem. Who knows how the little family have been making ends meet- perhaps Joseph has been able to find some work, perhaps extended family have made a little space available to him and to Mary with their little one. But they have had at least a little bit of time to get to grips with caring for their new baby.

I wonder what they felt when, months after the strange business of the shepherds turning up, total strangers, foreigners, who wouldn’t even have spoken the same language as them, came knocking at their door, bearing the oddest possible gifts for a peasant child: gold, frankincense and myrrh. In a small community, so long ago, any such visitors would have stuck out like a flag on a pole. Mary and Joseph must have wondered what to make of it all. These strange men, bowing down in homage, to their little boy. Completely unexpected, and, as it turns out, thoroughly unsafe. They may have meant well, but in fact the wise men had unwittingly laid a trail straight to the door Herod wanted to find.

It’s not far from Jerusalem to Bethlehem- you could walk it in a couple of hours, and the Magi can, perhaps, be forgiven, for assuming that the new king would be born in the great city of David, in a royal palace and going to enquire there. That, after all, is where most kings would have been born.

They were obviously accomplished astronomers, following the star and recognising its great significance, but perhaps their wisdom didn’t extend into the realm of politics. Going to Herod to ask if you could meet the new king was a bit like wandering up to the Kremlin and asking Vladimir Putin if he could point you the way to his successor.

And we know how the story unfolds. Mary and Joseph manage to escape to Egypt. The wise men- fortunately also warned in a dream, “go home by another road”.

There is no such escape for the people of Bethlehem whose little ones are summarily

slaughtered. As we have watched the absolute carnage unfold in Israel and Gaza since

October, it is as though we are watching some horrible action replay, as though we are

caught in a sort of groundhog day in which the innocent are simply swept up in events over which they have no control, paying a bitter price for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Paradoxically this only serves to remind us- certainly to remind me- that this is exactly why we need Jesus so desperately. We need to be rescued from our instincts to violence and vengeance and territorialism, and to look once again to the beauty, simplicity and miracle that is in every single human life, just needing space to flourish, and love and

encouragement to unfold.

However- back to the wise men.

They have come on a long journey- we believe it would have been several hundred

kilometers and across mostly desert terrain- extremely demanding stuff. You would travel across the desert at night and rest as best you could during the heat of the day. So the stars were your only guide. You would, if you were following a star, be using it absolutely to lead you in the right direction. The compass wasn’t invented until about 200 years after Jesus was born, so looking to the sky was really all you had if you didn’t know the terrain you were in.

Imagine the faith, the courage, the determination, you would need to go on such a journey. No guarantee that you would make it there- and no guarantee that you would make it back, either. And without any of the equipment we might consider absolutely essential. In spite of the apparent stupidity of their mission, and the utter folly of approaching Herod, is there not a Holy wisdom in what they do? Perhaps the real wisdom of these men, is that they were willing to take such risks and to undergo discomfort and uncertainty, in order to encounter the true king.

Of course when they finally arrive in Jerusalem and encounter Herod they find that, far

from having reached a safe haven, they have wandered into a place of genuine peril. They have asked the wrong question of the wrong person and set a whole series of awful events in train. They have to try to get out of Bethlehem another way, not retracing their steps through Jerusalem. They must be unseen, undetected. Can you imagine what would have happened to them if Herod had caught up with them?

I wonder what risks we are prepared to take, and what uncertainties we are prepared to

live with, as we begin our journey through this year.

Are we too wedded to security, habit, our own comfort zones, to step into the unknown?

Speaking for myself I much prefer to stick with familiar ground, known routines.

Even though I try to break myself out of always doing the same things and thinking in the same ways, I am far from being the kind of person who slings everything into a sack and wanders off into the desert trusting that all will be well.

Can we take a step of faith this year? This New Year? Can we manage without compass and map and just follow where Jesus is calling us, wherever that might be? Can we- will we- take risks? We are unlikely to be hunted down by Herod, but we may face ridicule or

hostility if we are really set on following Jesus and his teaching. We may be called all sorts of names. We may lose face, lose status, lose friends.

But if we find Jesus, if we get to kneel at his feet and pay him homage and offer him the

gifts of our hearts and our lives, how amazing would that be. If we genuinely find his

transforming presence, if we are able to receive his love in our hearts and reflect it into our bleeding and broken world, wouldn’t that be worth pretty much anything we might risk on the way?

My prayer for us, this year, is that we will be risk takers, single minded in pursing the

presence of Jesus, wherever he may call us, and that like the wise men, we will find him in unexpected places, and worship him with joy.

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