In our Gospel reading we are introduced, at last, to the magi from the east, our wise men, our three kings. Though we don’t know that there were three, there may have been more, we do know from our reading that they set out on a greatly challenging journey, with temptation, frustration and attempted foul play. What do we know then?
We know that the wise men arrived in Jerusalem, after Jesus was born. They didn’t arrive in Bethlehem where this King they were seeking actually was. We know that whilst a new baby brings curiosity, it doesn’t necessarily bring visitors from far away, unless they are family or close friends. This points to Jesus’ royalty, as we also know that a royal family would await visits from across the kingdom and further… if someone didn’t turn up to pay homage to your new child, it would be seen as a slight against you. We know that when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem and began asking around, word soon reached King Herod, the man who had been appointed King of the Jews by the Roman authorities. By “all Jerusalem” it is hyperbole. Instead of all Jewish people being afraid, it is more likely that Matthew means the royal we: the Jewish leadership. We know that Herod required evidence, so he could make sense of what was being said. We know that through this evidence, Herod is given a frame of reference for the child he wants to find. Later in Matthew he orders the death of all boys under 2 years old. It is reasonable to conclude that it had taken the Magi 2 years to travel to Jerusalem. The Magi’s challenging, surprising, honouring journey that brought fear was also one of danger.
Here was this group of men, who weren’t Jewish, or even from the surrounding area, and they chose to make a significantly challenging and dangerous journey. They could have decided in Jerusalem that they’d been mistaken, and yet they trusted in a star, sent by a God they probably didn’t believe in. And what happens next is astonishing. Verse 10 says, when they saw the star they were overjoyed. The Magi had set out on their challenging and dangerous journey. They’d no doubt been disappointed in Jerusalem when they arrived and were met with suspicion and manipulation. They’d been given the next clue, Bethlehem, but really it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Their journey had hit a dead end, until… The star appeared. The same star. That star of heavenly grandeur and love. Suddenly, their journey was one of joy and hope, as they hurried to greet the new King.
In the Magi walked, into an ordinary house, with an ordinary family. They had come from the King’s courts in Jerusalem, from great grandness. And yet, as they arrived in this humble home, with a humble family, they recognised the child – the toddler, likely dirty and noisy. They recognised him as the KING. And they worshipped him. They offered him the gifts they had brought: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Upon kneeling, whilst feeling overwhelmed with joy, the Magi offered this toddler KING gifts they had brought with them.
The magi come prepared to show honour and bless new royalty with gifts fit for their status. Gold, for Jesus, because of his kingship, frankincense because of his priesthood, and myrrh??? In ancient times, myrrh was a valuable commodity. Beyond being used as incense, it was used also as perfume, and medicine. Most specifically, myrrh was commonly used (especially in Egypt) in the process of embalming. I cannot help but wonder what drew the magi to choose a substance used in death as a present for the new King.
As we begin our journey, from stable to tomb, we turn our eyes away from the sweet baby in the manger towards the pain wrought face of a dying man and his words: it is finished. These wise men, the kings, the Magi, they undertook a challenging and dangerous journey, and were greeted with the face of God himself. They brought gifts fit for a Heavenly King, and they could not help but worship Him. When people come face to face with God, they cannot help but worship him.
What then can we do, but pour out our whole lives as a living sacrifice… a living worship to him?