In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“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 wise men 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.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Because we know so little about these mysterious visitors from the East (we do not even know how many of them there were) we can allow ourselves to speculate about them and the effect on them of their visit to the family in Bethlehem.
But we do know a lot about Herod the Great, his non-Jewish ancestry, ten wives and ruthless cruelty – including the murder of some of his many sons. It is hardly surprising that such a person should have felt gravely threatened by the question, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” He had no intention of allowing such a child to live, let alone pay him homage.
But what about the Magi, pagan astrologers following a profession considered respectable, indeed honourable at that time, even though discredited now? Though they are renowned for the gifts they left behind it is surely likely that they made their journey in the hope of gaining benefits for themselves, otherwise why go to all that trouble? They made for a palace where they could expect recognition and reward but were then re-directed to a humble home in a small outlying town. Did they wonder whether they were on a fool’s errand?
However, having come so far, they carried on, found the house and the family and were overwhelmed with joy! A true “conversion experience” if there ever was one. They were changed by that encounter. They left behind frankincense and myrrh, doubtless used to create an air of mystery during their astrological interpretations and induce a sense heightened consciousness in their clients. And gold – the reward they expected and received.
For them this was an encounter which changed them completely and so they left behind the tools of their trade and the rewards it had brought them and returned home different people by a different road.
The Magi had to change direction when they found the new king was not in the palace but in a humble home – how ready are we to change direction when our hopes and expectations are not realised?
The Magi had to take a different route after meeting Jesus, perhaps as astrologers no more – what changes, indeed sacrifices are we ready to make when we encounter Jesus?
when our hopes and expectations are not realised
may we know your guidance for our future plans.
May we recognise the claims of Jesus
and have the strength to change our lives to follow him.
The Rev’d Julian Macro is a retired minister and member of Verwood URC in Dorset.