Matthew 2:1-12: The Iranian Connection (or Christmas Everyday)
Although they were excluded from the invitation list at the recent Annapolis Middle East Conference, everyone from the Royal Family and the Prime Minister down, and even the US President and American political leaders, and the American people, have been celebrating the visit of an Iranian delegation to Palestine. This Christmas, we have been celebrating how a group of Iranians visited Palestine carrying funding for an opposition figure the authorities wanted dead. Then the Iranians evaded the authorities, ignoring the correct exit procedures and fled the country. Of course, the Queen, Prime Minister and President have not been celebrating contemporary Iranian involvement, but the historic visit of a past Iranian delegation – the Magi (the ‘Wise Men’ or ‘Kings’) who came to Bethlehem bringing gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to Jesus. So without Iran and Iranian involvement, we would not have exchanged gifts on Christmas Day!
The Christmas story is a study in contrasts. The contrast between religious hypocrisy and spiritual integrity. Between the religious hyprocrisy of Herod and the Priests, and the spiritual integrity of the Shepherds and Magi. How are we enable to distinguish one from the other?
By their response to God's revelation in nature, but above all His self revelation in the Scriptures. For the scriptures demand a response, not passive acquiescence nor mere lip service, but submission. As we celebrate the Epiphany, I would like us to reflect upon the Kings Hypocrisy, the Scripture's Testimony, and the Magi's Integrity.
1. The King’s Hypocrisy Exposed
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem And asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. (Matthew 2:1-3)
Herod was king of most of Israel as we know it today. He was half Jew and half Idumaean. He had been appointed King by the Roman Senate in 40BC and gained control of the country in 37BC. Unpopular with nationalists Herod was seen as a puppet of the Romans. He tried to please the Jews by rebuilding the Temple, while at the same time ruthlessly crushing any resistance to Roman law. Verse 7,
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him." (Matthew 2:7)
Herod was not about to hand over his throne to some usurper. Just because Jesus had the impeccable credential of being born in Bethlehem, the ancient seat of the Davidic line. This would not get in Herod's way. Such was the political background to the climactic event of all history. Unbelief and hypocrisy were endemic. Herod's depraved scheming makes the Borgias look like democrats and certain contemporary politicians positively saintly. Jesus birth divided people, as it always has. Here at the very start of his life we see two camps forming: one full of praise and welcome; the other full of hatred and opposition. Herod and the Magi stand out in strong contrast, a contrast that runs like a fault line right through the life of Christ all the way to the cross and beyond. The Kings Hypocrisy and Unbelief. This was exposed through,
2. The Scripture’s Testimony Unheeded
When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: "'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'"
The theme of fulfilment is very strong right through Matthew's Gospel. He of all four quotes from the Old Testament the most. The Scriptures promised long ago that the king who was to sit on David's throne for ever, would be born in Bethlehem. Matthew shows how God's word was fulfilled in the smallest detail. God keeps His promises. However its not enough just to know these promises. It is possible to be theologically correct and yet remain outside the kingdom of God. The chief priests and teachers of the law knew perfectly well where the Kingly Messiah would be born. When asked by Herod they gave the correct answer.
But it appears these facts were neither common knowledge nor acted upon, otherwise why did Herod have to even ask such a basic question about the central figure in Jewish eschatology? They had not taught these important facts of the Jewish faith to Herod. Nor did they seem to show any interest themselves at the news that the Messiah may have already been born. Did they go to greet him?
Did they lift a sandal? Not at all. The King's Hypocrisy Exposed, the Scriptures Testimony Unheeded,
3. The Magi’s Integrity Rewarded
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matthew 2:8-12)
A tremendous amount of legend has accrued over the years around the Magi. There is no reason to suppose there were three of them, that they were kings, or that we know their names. The Magi were the priestly order of Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Iran and still practised there by a minority today. Zoroastrians were known for their astrological interests, and had a theology of an expected eschatological virgin-born figure called the ‘saoshyant’ (‘Benefactor’). God in His mercy spoke to these Magi through their beliefs to bring them to see Jesus as the fulfilment of their hopes. In the ancient world most people believed the stars foretold future events. The steady courses of the heavenly bodies represented the settled order of the universe. When some new astronomical happening took place, it was reasonable to suppose that God was breaking into his ordered world and making known some news. When Julius Caesar died in 44BC, one of the most astonishing astronomical convergences in all history took place. A nova appeared in the sky above his funeral pyre. Everyone assumed that he had gone to join the pantheon of Gods. Thereafter stars and great men were definitely in fashion.
Moreover a star formed part of Jewish Messianic expectation. The famous prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24 "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel." (Numbers 24:17).
This prophecy was dear to Jewish hearts. So both Jews and Gentiles were predisposed towards seeing in the stars an indication of what they might expect.
What ever the Magi's saw, whatever their religious background, is it not incredible that men with so little to go on should venture so far, enduring such hardships in travel, and face such uncertainties of finding the one the star guided them to?
These wise, grown adults bowed before the baby Jesus and worshipped him. Now this was no impulsive thing on their part. Earlier on in the story when they arrived in Jerusalem they had said,
“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the East and have come to worship him." (Matthew 2:2)
Clearly they had been thinking about what they were going to do for a very long time. People do not normally worship Kings or Queens. Clearly they had realised that Jesus was sent from God. What is more when they found the Christ, they wanted to give such costly gifts and the worship of their hearts. They even recognised him as "King of the Jews," a title which stands out in striking contrast with Herod's position, and does not reoccur in Matthews Gospel until the crucifixion. Herod held jealously to his kingship by might of arms and bitter repression. Jesus showed his true kingship by self-sacrifice for others.
At Calvary Jesus demonstrated that the weakness of God is more powerful than the strength of people, and the Magi seemed to have had some inkling of Christ's death in their choice of gifts. These were treasures of great value, and great significance also.
Gold = Royalty = Born to be King of the world
Frankincense = Divinity = Born the Son of God
Myrrh = Mortality = Born to die in our place
The wise men gave of their very best, because God had given His. In travelling so far, to worship Jesus they were really giving themselves to Jesus. Today is our opportunity at the start of a new year to offer ourselves to Jesus also. Those wise men travelled a long way to find Jesus. But their journey was worth it, so is ours. For the pagans, God used the stars to confirm what the Jewish scriptures already foretold, for those willing to seek the truth. The Kings religious hypocrisy drove him to murder, the Magi's spiritual integrity drove them to worship. How does your faith compare? What does it drive you to do?
The coming of Christ by way of a Bethlehem manger, heralded by prophecies and guiding stars may seem strange and stunning. But when we take that step to kneel and worship Him, to receive Jesus into our lives, then the meaning unfolds and the strangeness vanishes. Make your first new year resolution today. Desire to be more like Jesus' first disciples, the Shepherds and the Magi. Overjoyed in knowing Him, overflowing in sharing Him. Lets pray.