Births are intimate celebrations for family and friends
I guess that there are three big events in most peoples’ lives. The first is our birth and the second is our wedding (if we are married). These events are so significant that they are celebrated throughout our lives with birthdays and anniversaries. The third big occasion, that obviously no one here has yet experienced, is our death and funeral. Now I realise that becoming a Christian and baptism are more important spiritually, but I’m talking about most people.
Let’s think about these three events. Weddings tend to be pretty elaborate affairs. I remember my wedding . . . Lots of people make an effort to be at weddings — some you know well and often others that are more distant relatives or from the other side of the family. They’re both formal and fun. But you wouldn’t call them intimate.
Funerals are even more formal than weddings. The mourners at a funeral will range from the closest family to those that are merely acquaintances, but who wish to show their respect to the family. Funerals are opportunities to both grieve and celebrate the life of the person, but you wouldn’t really call them intimate.
But births are different. You wouldn’t call a birth formal. They’re messy, fun and beautiful. Oh I realise there may be some pain involved (Debbie did squeeze my hand very hard) and occasionally deep disappointment that cuts deep, but most times once that precious bundle has emerged, it’s time for close family and good friends to celebrate with laughter and horror stories and, of course, lots of cuddles of the “dried prune.” Sorry, but someone has to be honest! Births are usually special, intimate celebrations for close family and friends.
And Jesus’ birth was just like that
Jesus’ birth was pretty similar. I know that Joseph and Mary were actually away from home. That they’d travelled to the south of Judea away from their hometown of Nazareth and there appeared to be no family around when Jesus was born in a stable. Well that was true for the night of the birth. They’d just arrived in town. But the reason they’d travelled to Bethlehem was for a Roman census where “everyone went to his own town to register.” (Luke 2:3) Because Joseph was a descendent of King David, he had to go to David’s hometown to be counted in the census. So you can imagine the family that would have been around the place at the time. If Mary was also a descendent of David, as many scholars say that Luke’s genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:23-37) suggests, then it would have been like a huge family reunion in Bethlehem; a real “rellie” bash.
But what about the terrible circumstances — giving birth in a cattle shed? Well you have to remember that Mary and Joseph were not yuppies who can’t survive without a mobile phone and dishwasher. They were from good working class, country stock. These were the days when women would give birth in the bush. I can imagine they would take it all in their stride. “Okay Joseph, grab those rags. Wrap them around the baby. That’s good, now put him down in the straw in this feed trough. That’s right, gently.” Admittedly, not quite what you’d expect for God’s son, but it could have been almost, dare I say, exciting.
Of course, the shepherds who visited the night of the birth weren’t exactly friends or family. But being from the lower end of the social spectrum, and rejected by many of the religious establishment who regarded shepherds as unclean and the pits of society, I think they were kind of God’s stand-in family for the night. I mean God has always particularly loved and accepted those who are doing it tough.
So the birth of Jesus was a lovely local birth, just the way God planned it. I can imagine the family gathering around the next day as the news got out. Jesus’ birth was probably not all that different from yours. There were no headlines, no reporters, no grand pronouncements, no big parties. It was just another lovely local birth celebrated intimately by family and some shepherds.
Except for the “wise men”
Except for the wise men! How on earth do they fit into the picture?
Read Matthew 2:1-12. These wise men are surrounded by legend. Traditionally they were recognised as three kings by the names of Casper, Melchior and Balthasar. Casper was young, beardless, and ruddy, and he brought the frankincense. Melchior was an old, grey-haired man with a long beard, and he brought the gold. And Balthasar was swarthy with a newly grown beard, and he brought the myrrh. This, of course, is all fiction. We don’t even know how many there were (there were three gifts, not three men Matthew 2:11), let alone their names or facial features.
But we do know that they came some time after the birth (Matthew 2:1) and that Jesus’ family was now in a house (Matthew 2:11). Herod’s decision to kill the boys in Bethlehem under two years of age (Matthew 2:16) would suggest that by the time the wise men arrived, Jesus may well have been a toddler.
And we do know that these visitors were “Magi” — this is the word translated “wise men” in the KJV, but left in its original form in the NIV (because it’s difficult to translate). It seems to originally have been a name for a Median tribe. You see the Medes and Persians formed an empire together, but the Medes were finally subdued by the Persians, and this tribe of Medes kind of retreated from the political world to pursue a more meditative lifestyle. The Magi were a cluster of truth-seekers committed to holiness and wisdom. They were skilled in philosophy, medicine and natural science. Kind of like a whole family of university professors. You can imagine the conversation at the dinner table!
Well, whether the Magi came from this tribe, or a similar group, it’s incredible that these philosophers from Persia would get involved in an ordinary, intimate, local, family event, on the other side of the world.
Who travelled to worship Jesus on the strength of a star.
But these Magi had a clue that something special was happening. As trained astrologers with insatiable curiosity, they had seen a remarkable astrological phenomenon. A new star had appeared in the east (Matthew 2:2). We’re not sure what this new star was. It could have been Halley’s comet in 11BC, or a brilliant conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in 7BC, or Sirius rising at sunrise with extraordinary brilliance from 5 to 2BC. Perhaps, more likely, it was a special God-designed phenomenon that was not obvious to everyone. Certainly Matthew 2:2 would suggest this. However the star appeared, in the worldview of these searchers and thinkers, a change in the heavens meant that God was on the move.
There was also a strong expectation throughout the world of those days, that the time was ripe for the appearance of a King in Israel who would usher in a reign of peace for humankind. So the Magi put the star and the hope together, packed their bags with expensive presents, and headed off in search of this baby king whom they believed would change the world.
They had no idea that others would not welcome such wonderful news with open arms. They could not comprehend that wily, King Herod, may have had another agenda (Matthew 2:1-8) when he sent them off to Bethlehem to find the baby. I mean they’d travelled the world just for the opportunity to worship the baby king and offer him gifts. Who wouldn’t be excited about a new chance for the world; the possibility of a leader who could bring real peace? You just couldn’t wipe the smile off their faces when they felt that they were getting close (Matthew 2:10).
Imagine Mary’s surprise when she opened the door of her one room, working-class cottage in Bethlehem to see a group of dignified Persian philosophers and scientists climbing down off their camels. Imagine her wide-eyed wonder when they prostrated themselves in front of the toddler in her arms and honoured him with wonderful words of worship (Matthew 2:11). Imagine her deep gratitude when they offered Jesus expensive gifts that would support her little family for many years.
Then these Magi climbed back on to their camels and disappeared into the sunset. (Well actually the sunrise to be more accurate, seeing they were from the East.) They had travelled to Israel on the strength of a star, and fulfilled their dream. They actually head the list of millions of Gentiles who have worshipped Jesus as the Son of God.
Because they were truth-seekers
The mysterious Magi show us that God’s work is much greater than we often envisage. Imagine God bringing eastern astrologers to worship his Son in Bethlehem through the medium of a new astrological phenomenon and the advice of Herod the horrible. Oh I realise that Scripture also played a part (Matthew 2:5-6), but God’s revelation through astrology seems a little questionable. However, the more I read Scripture and the more I study God’s work, the more I realise that you can’t fit God in a box. It was just like the God I’m growing to know, to bring philosophers from Persia to worship his baby boy in the backwoods of Israel. I love a God who does the unexpected and impossible. I can just imagine him saying to the angels with a smile on His face, “Now my Son’s birth is to be a local, family affair generally unnoticed by the world, but, hey, I think I’ll throw in a huge angel choir, and some wealthy astrologers from Persia for good measure.” Don’t think that you can second-guess God. He’s far too immense and powerful and astute for that. Let God be God and just worship Him.
But what I find really surprising about this Scripture is not so much the way God works, I’m used to being astounded by that, but the faith of the Magi. On the basis of what must have been a few whimsical dreams, they set off to find and worship this newborn king. Oh, God may have spoken to them directly or in a dream (He certainly did in Matthew 2:12), but we find no evidence of this in the passage. Just a new star (Matthew 2:2), and they’re gone.
I guess this shouldn’t surprise me, because it has always been the nature of seekers. The people living alongside Joseph and Mary may have thought that the baby next door was just another squawking toddler, but the Magi from across the world didn’t. They were searching for truth and purpose and spiritual reality, and they recognised that this baby was central to the future of the world. What are months, maybe years, on the road when you’re going to worship a world-changing king?
Jesus once told a little story (Matthew 13:45-46) about a merchant who spent his life dealing in fine pearls. He knew his pearls and made lots of money. But one day he came across the most magnificent pearl he had ever seen. Every other pearl paled in comparison. So he went and sold everything he owned in order to buy it. What’s the good of a reasonable pearl collection when you’re missing the most valuable one? The Magi were looking for the precious pearl, and when they felt they’d found it, wild horses couldn’t keep them away.
So come on truth-seekers — focus on Jesus
At the heart of Christmas lies the incredible truth that the Magi only partially recognized. It’s even better than they thought. That toddler, unbelievable as it seems, was actually God’s Son who came from heaven to help us understand how much God cares, to set us free from our rebellion against our creator through his own sacrificial death, and eventually to judge and rule our world. Now that’s a magnificent pearl of truth that’s worth abandoning everything for.
But in our honest attempts at Christmas to celebrate this truth and worship God’s Son, we so easily obstruct it. Offering our lives and gifts to Jesus can be obstructed by the need for buying the right presents, and Christmas carols and lights, and food and festivity. Oh there’s nothing wrong with any of these things. Christmas should be a time of celebration. I love carols and presents and Christmas dinner, but they can easily be distractions.
You see these things are peripheral. They’re nice pearls when there lies an absolutely magnificent pearl at the heart of our celebration. His name is Jesus. You may not have to travel across the world to honour him; you may not have expensive gifts to offer him; and you certainly don’t have to talk to kings to find him. But the attitude of the Magi is one that necessarily pervades all true worshippers. We abandon our agendas and desires and priorities to offer our worship to Jesus. We focus on Jesus.
There are many people this Christmas who will celebrate a lovely local birth. They will remember a baby who was born 2000 years ago, think nice thoughts towards others, and maybe even pray for peace on earth. It will be a good Christmas for them. They will enjoy their pleasant pearls.
But there are others (including many of us here) who, as fervent truth seekers, will abandon their priorities and prejudices to offer themselves wholeheartedly to Jesus; who will do whatever it takes to put Jesus first; and who will grasp this priceless pearl with both hands. They know that every sacrifice is worthwhile, because they know they have found the truth that they have been searching for all their lives. This Christmas they will truly worship Jesus.
In doing this, we follow in the footsteps of the Magi, those magnificent, mystery men whom God brought from the other side of the world to worship King Jesus.
John Sweetman is principal of Queensland Baptist College of Ministries in Brookfield, Queensland, Australia.