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Here in these weeks leading up to Christmas, we are posting a series of meditations focused on the story of Jesus’ birth from the Gospels. For more on what Advent means and why many Christains observe it, here’s a short introduction. If you’d like to make a wreath of your own for your family or study group, here’s how. The text for this week’s reflection comes from Matthew 2:1-12.
1Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2saying, “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.” 3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
6″‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'”
7Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. —Matthew 2:1-12 (ESV)
Herod the Great was a paranoid sociopath—a personality perfect for the job he held as the ruler of Judea under the authority of Rome. He built his empire to create the illusion that he was a man who could be in many places at the same time. Aside from his fortresses at Herodium, Sebaste, Machaerus and Masada, he also built palaces in Caesarea, Jericho and Jerusalem. At any moment, he could have been in any one of them. So at every moment, he might was well have been in all of them.
His affinity for architecture was well known, as was his obsessive mistrust of those he couldn’t keep an eye on, and even more so of those he could.
Already the bones of one wife, several sons and multiple distant relatives were gathered in the family tomb as the result of his conviction that each and every one of them was at one time or another involved in a conspiracy to kill him.
There could only be one ruler in Judea. Herod was passionate about this.
Learned men from the east, experts in the study of sacred texts, had heard that somewhere in Judea a king had been born—the king of the Jews. They remembered that their Jewish holy book said, “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” (Num 24:17) So when they saw a star they did not know rise in the direction of Jerusalem, an uncommon star that seemed to have been lit for them, they followed it.
It led them to Jerusalem. They wanted to honor this king and to pay tribute to his majesty, so they began to ask around. Where was he?
When Herod was told of these men and their quest, the dissonance of hearing the words “king” and “Jews” with no mention of him was more than he could bear. He summoned the chief priests and the scribes to tell him everything they knew about this king, no doubt smoldering all the while with the notion that they had been holding out on him.
Herod came seeking a theology lesson, and the priests gave it. The prophet Micah said that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the city there just a few miles south where Jacob’s love Rachel was buried and where King David was born. They gave Herod these details without hesitation, quoting Scripture to the verse. They knew all about it. But still, not one lifted a foot to go and see for themselves if the Magi were right.
The Chief Priests were the keepers of the temple and the religious life and culture of the Jews. The Scribes, or teachers of the law, were the guardians of the Word of God. They wrote copies of the sacred scriptures, poured over them, knew the minute details of every scroll of every book. And yet, among those who should have been the most expectant, all the religious leaders displayed at the mention of their coming king was apathy.
They did not seek him then. They would not seek him later either. When he was grown and was ministering around them, they did not believe in him.
But Herod did.
Herod was one to err on the side of caution and it was enough for him that the Magi had come so far so laden with such gifts. But this one, he figured, he should play close to the vest. If there was such a king, maybe the Magi could lead him there. Maybe if he feigned a desire to pay a tribute of his own, the Magi would see in him a comrade.
“When you find him,” Herod told the visitors, “Come back and tell me where he is. I have a gift of my own.”
After hearing him out, they left for the settlement to the south. It wasn’t long before their familiar star rose before them, leading them like a shepherd to a house on the outskirts of town.
Finding the king, it was no wonder why he was nothing more than a murmur in Jerusalem. When they entered the house, they found a child in the arms of a young woman—practically still a girl were it not for the other-worldly look of an old soul in her eyes.
There was something about that moment that only the woman, her husband, the Magi and the child knew—something that bent the knees of those scholars to the posture of worship. There was no crown, no miracle they could see, no sign of greatness. Just a woman and a child.
One of the Magi moved forward on behalf of the rest and produced a purse of gold. Laying it at the child’s feet, another came with a flask of myrrh, and another with a box of frankincense. Unaware that they were probably funding a hasty trip to Egypt, they gave these gifts for no other reason than to honor the one born King of the Jews.
This was not their king. Israel’s God was not their people’s God. And yet, here they were because the thought of a God of mercy with healing in His wings awakened in them a longing to be close.
No matter how unfamiliar the King in this story may be, God beckons the multitudes across the span of space and time to behold His salvation and to worship.
The journey of these Magi was a success. As they slept the slumber of satisfaction, an angel unfamiliar to them but known well to the woman warned them to take another route home. History would remember a Herod dripping with the blood of wives and sons. But not this son, not yet.
Having been made aware of Herod’s bloodlust for this baby and his insidious, yet consistent plan to slaughter all Judean male children under the age of two, Joseph gathered his wife and the boy and set out for Egypt.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).