When I was growing up we had a nativity scene that took pride of place in our lounge it was a way, in the midst of the tinsel, food, catching up with distant relatives, festivities and phonetic pace of Christmas, of focusing back on the reason for the season: Jesus birth. We knew Christmas was coming when the naivety scene would be unpacked from its box with the blue lid with the plastic window and put in its place of honour. This advent I want to invite you to join in that family tradition by unpacking the nativity scene with me. No, Not just removing these figurines from polystyrene packing and tissue paper but looking afresh at each of the characters that we traditional associate with this scene and see what they have to say to us as we celebrate Christmas
Today I want to look at the Magi, these mysterious figures who Matthews tells us came from the east where they had seen a sign in the heavens that heralded the birth of a special child, one born to be king of the Jews.
In the orthodox Christian traditions the coming of the magi is celebrated at Epiphany. In countries where the orthodox faith is strong Epiphany is the major festival for giving gifts not Christmas. Epiphany is celebrated twelve days after Christmas usually on January 6th. That’s where you get the twelve days of Christmas.
I guess because we know so little about these men and where they came from that they have become very much wrapped up in Christian tradition and legend to fill in the void in our knowledge.
We don’t know how many of them there were, old traditions talked about twelve, then later it became three. This number was based on the number of gifts they gave to the Christ child.
We don’t know what they looked like or their names, but they have been given persona's in tradition. The one who gave the Gold is known as Melchior, he was old and had a grey hair and a long grey beard, Asian in his colouring and appearance. The one who gave the gift of frankincense is known as Caspar and he was young and clean-shaven and ruddy in complexion, European type. The third that gave the gift of myrrh is known as Balthazar, he was dark in his colouring and had a beard, African perhaps. I Love the Christian art of Chinese artist He Qi, because it allows us to see the gospels in (for me as a person from European decent) a different cultural perspective and the 1mages to the left and right are his depiction of the Magi as wide men coming from China and also in the orthodox understanding of being from different continents .
What we do know about these visitors is helpful to us as we approach Christmas.
We know that Matthew called them magi. A strange word and when I was young I wondered why the packet soup we ate when we were in a hurry had been named after them. E. Ellis in a article New Bible Dictionary article says Magi is a word used by ancient historians to refer to a priestly tribe of the Medes. In Daniel (1:20, 2:27 and 5:15) its used to refer to a class of wise men non-Jewish religious men who were astrologers and interpreted dreams and message of the gods. This is probably what Matthew has in mind when he calls them Magi. By New Testament times Magi had become synonymous with anyone who practised magic for example Simon called Magus, who the apostles encounter in Acts chapter 8. Who wanted to buy the power to bestow the Holy Spirit on people.
So firstly we do know that they would have been gentiles and this is the reason why they appear in Matthew's gospel they are a foreshadow of the amazing truth that in the coming of Jesus Christ God’s salvation was for all people: That the messiah had not come just to save his own peculiar people but to save all God’s people. For Matthew writing for his predominantly Jewish audience it was important to let them know that right from the beginning the good news of Jesus Christ was not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. Maybe the way in which the major racial types have come to be represented in the traditions surrounding the magi is a reflection of this fact that the kingdom of God would become a worldwide revolution of grace. For the Jewish readers of Matthew it would be shocking to have these men of another religion and race come, recognise and worship their messiah first. As revolutionary perhaps as it is for us today to realise in a world where Christianity in the west is in decline and is booming in places like Africa, Asia and Latin America the average Christian today is not a white fat cat American man, but rather an unimaginably poor, brown skinned woman living in a third world mega city. They are our sisters and brothers in Christ.
Secondly, what we know about the Magi is that they sought after truth. They saw a new sign in the heavens and then they went searching for the truth it revealed to them. It shows us something of the way in which the Holy Spirit is at work even in the lives of people of other religions to bring them to know the wonderful good news of Jesus Christ. They are not the enemy they are on a quest for truth. The Magi didn’t know the full extent of what the sign in the heavens meant they deduced that there was one born king of the Jews. This was enough to lead them on a search for that one.
Both the powers of that day and the indifference of the religious leaders they met along the way didn’t put them off seeking the truth. Seeking Jesus. Herod’s self interest and paranoia, his desperate desire to eliminate any threats, could have led them to just about ruin everything. But open to the voice of the spirit they are warned in a dream not to go back to him but to go home a different way. The religious people in Jerusalem knew where the messiah was to be born but did not seem willing to venture with these people from another religion to find the messiah they were all waiting for. They were too busy and too caught up in their temple rituals to look beyond that for the truth. The magi persevered in their quest for the truth and were rewarded with a chance to be amongst the first to worship Jesus ‘the way the truth and the life’.
In recent times this quest has turned into a Christian slogan “Wise men still seek him today…’ That’s true while interest in organised religion is on the wain in the west people are still fascinated by Jesus Christ. People who seek spiritual truth from all faiths or no faith are drawn to Jesus. They are longing for a real personal encounter with a real spiritual truth. In the western world maybe many of us have become like the political and religious leaders who met the magi along the way. We have become more interested in persevering our social status and influence or our rituals and traditions and have lost the zeal to meet with the person of Jesus Christ and so people who seek the truth and seek to meet Christ who follow God given signs often pass us by. Leonard Sweet puts it like this
“Christianity is in decline where faith is being passed on by churches for whom the real presence has vanished from the world, churches that no longer have confidence in scriptures or the spirit, churches whose cold Christ can no longer warm the heart. Christianity is growing where churches are crazy enough to expect that ‘every day life’ and every day, will be invaded by the unknown.”
I pray we are crazy enough as to expect to encounter the Christ of Christmas everyday of the year.
Thirdly we know that the magi bought gifts through which to pay homage and worship to the king. People have seen different aspects of Jesus ministry in the gifts that he was given.
Gold is a gift for a king, and Jesus was a man born to be king, but in a totally different way than we would expect as William Barclay says he would reign, not by force but by love; and he was to rule over men’s hearts not from a throne but from a cross.”
Frankincense was a gift for a priest; it was used in temple worship and in temple sacrifice. The function of the priest was to open a way to God for human beings. The Latin word for priest is pontifex, which means bridge-builder and this, is what Jesus did for us he opened the only way to God, he built a bridge that we may enter into the very presence of God.
Myrrh was a gift to someone who was going to die. Myrrh was used to embalm the bodies of the dead. Jesus came into this world to die. A picture by the painter Holman Hunt illustrates this. It shows Jesus as a young man at the door of the carpentry shop in Nazareth stretching after being bent over the workbench all day. The setting sun casts his shadow on the wall of the shop and it forms a picture of the cross. In the background is Mary reacting with horror as she sees it and remembers the words of Simeon spoke to her in the temple “that a sword will pierce her soul.” Jesus came to die and through his death to make a way across the chasm of our sin may be built: A bridge to life with our heavenly father. The gifts foretell Jesus as the true king the perfect high priest and in the end the supreme saviour for us all.
So be on the look out for Magi this Christmas, they may not fit our picture of someone seeking truth but we can with the holy spirits guidance help them find the truth and the one they are looking for. Maybe they are people that the spirit is going to use to lead us to encounter our messiah in fresh ways and places.
People join the magi this Christmas and seek Jesus. Seek him to worship him and acknowledge him as your saviour and king. Don’t just seek to revel in the rituals and traditions that surround the season they are great and can point the way like the star did for the magi. Seek Jesus, become quest-ers who are willing to come from a far to encounter the one born king of the Jews. Bring your gifts to the king in worship and know that the one we are celebrating this Christmas is good news for all.