Who were those magi?

Read Matthew 2:1-12

Hang on. What on earth is God doing allowing Magi to the party? Surely God knows that they are not of the same religion? Worse still, is God aware that they are astrologers? God might has well have invited Russell Grant, Mystic Meg, and that weird bloke — the sports presenter — the one who went a bit bonkers – David whatshisname – David Ike?

However, do not worry, for I have a plan. I am going to sanitise the story of Jesus’ birth, do a patch-up job, and do some damage limitation. For starters I will lose the bit about them being star-readers as it sounds far too ‘new-age’, uncomfortable, and bordering on the offensive. I am going to make them ‘kings’ or ‘wise men’. Yes, ‘kings’ sounds much better — a bit more important, and kings are the sort of people one would invite to a royal event. Secondly, I will make it three of them. Three Kings. Of course it does not say there are three of them in the Bible, but three is a much holier and more biblical number. Thirdly, we cannot have them turning up two years after Jesus was born — that just will not do. We cannot have toddlers in the story with their snotty noses, climbing all over the place. No, we will have the ‘three kings’ turn up at the manger on the night of Jesus’ birth. Just think how it will make our nativity plays so much more endearing! We could even have them wearing crowns and riding camels – that will look especially good on the Christmas cards!  Oooh, I can almost taste the mince pies. Of course, to reinforce all this we will need some new carols to sing. How about, ‘We three Kings of orient are?’

Fancy allowing a bunch of astrologers to the party. What would people think if they knew the truth? Then again, it is so typically God is it not? Those three — the Holy Trinity — are always breaking the rules and doing things their way, but why on earth did they allow outsiders? Surely there were plenty of kings and dignitaries around that could have paid their respects, and probably some living a darned-sight closer than Persia too?

Can you imagine Herod’s face when the Magi turned up in Jerusalem — the capital of the Jewish people? Herod called himself the King of the Jews and then this bunch of astrologers turn up on his doorstep and ask where they can find the the King of the Jews! Herod must have been like ‘Danaaaaaa – here I am!’ Then the astrologers glanced at each other with raised eyebrows, “Erm, no, we mean the one who has recently been born King of the Jews, we saw his star when it rose and we have come to worship him.”

We read that when Herod heard this he was ‘disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him’. Disturbed? Read, completely gobsmacked and apoplectic, because the astrologers were not talking about an earthly king, but the Messiah, the one for whom the whole Jewish nation had been waiting for hundreds and hundreds of years and the one they hoped was going to free them from Roman oppression. “You mean to say that the Messiah has already been born? What, now? Here in our lifetime? How come nobody told us?” So, what does Herod do, this leader of the Jewish people? He gets together his team to find out exactly where the Messiah was predicted to be born. Fantastic! Finally, the story is getting back on track and we have some important people invited to the party. Although I am not sure why Herod was so secretive about wanting to know when the child was born, and why did he not go with the astrologers?

The star had risen again — star that the astrologers called ‘his star’ — the star belonging to the ‘King of the Jews’. Could it have been the coming together or conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter? Certainly, that happened three times in one year back then. Saturn represented Israel and Jupiter represented royalty and so the conclusion would have been pretty obvious — a new king of Israel — however, these astrologers clearly knew that this king was no earthly king. There was more to Jesus’ birth, and enough for them to respond in only one way — to go and find him, and to worship him. Worship was mentioned three times in the Bible passage. The astrologers did not want to simply come and mark the occasion, or to ogle at the spectacle of the new king, and nor did they simply come to pay respects. No, they came to worship. It must have been very odd, a bunch of astrologers turning up and then bowing down before a small toddler. Then there were the gifts — gold for a king, incense for a priest, and perhaps the strangest gift of all, myrrh — a spiced used to anoint the dead. Perhaps these astrologers had read even more in the stars about who this Jesus was and what he was going to do?

It strikes me as a little strange that the people with all the knowledge, those living not very far away, and the very people who were waiting for a Messiah, did not go and see him, yet, a few people who lived miles away in a different land were obedient and made the effort. Perhaps it should not strike me as odd as two thousand years later nothing much has changed. God has put out the offer for everyone to respond to Jesus yet few come and pay homage to the King. But, perhaps, that is the point? Throughout Jesus’ ministry we read that it is often the outcasts, the poor, the marginalised, and those without rights ho respond to his message of unconditional love and acceptance. In fact, it seems that Jesus’ message was specifically aimed to be seen by those on the outside of religion. The star, signifying the birth of the King, was for all to see, and that is our role too. We are to shine like stars, with a message to declare through our words and actions, that the King has come, and you are invited to meet him.

I would like to finish with a Christmas story — a true story about God’s heart for those on the outside.

Bob was sat alone on a bench, illuminated by the pulsating glow of the light from a zebra crossing. It was 3am, cold, and a light drizzle was falling. Bob was low. That evening he had, again, got drunk, and now, as the numbing of the alcohol had worn off, a tide of depression had risen to take its place. Bob had never recovered from the death of is mother, and his relationship with this father was poor. He had no job, no prospects, no wife or girlfriend, no close friends to speak of, and he was in a cycle of despair from which he could not escape.

At 3.30am I woke from a restless sleep, and for some unknown reason, craved a cup of tea. My throat felt dry and the image of a cup of sweet tea would not leave my mind. I had never before craved a cup of tea in the night, and deciding such an idea was ridiculous, rolled over and tried to sleep. As I lay there, the craving became overpowering, and I could not dispel the thought of that delicious cup of thirst-quenching tea. Without a thought for the glass of water next to my bed, I could bear the desire no longer and so I got up, donned my dressing gown, and went into the kitchen to switch on the kettle. As I did so, my dog, Whispa, decided it must be morning and, excitedly wagging her tail, wanted to go outside to do her business. As it would take a couple of minutes for the kettle to boil, I relented and walked my dog outside around the front of the house and to the rear garden. As I did so, I saw a man, on the opposite side of the road, illuminated by the pulsating glow of a zebra crossing, sitting on a park bench. God spoke to my heart: “Take him a cup of tea.” I went back into the house, pulled on some clothes, made two mugs of steaming sweet tea, and went back out to where the man was sitting. “Would you like a mug of tea?” I asked. The man smiled and eagerly clasped the warm mug. “Thank you,” he replied.

Bob poured out his heart and he shared with me his story. I offered to pray for him and he accepted. That night, God gave me a special word for Bob — something private, between God and Bob. I invited Bob into my house and I made him toast and more tea. He slept on the sofa, and by the time I came down the next morning he had gone.

Two weeks later, I received, in the post, a letter from Bob. His life had begun to turn around. His relationship with his father had improved and he was in good spirits. It would not be the last time Bob would go on a downer but God was on his case, for God’s heart is for those on the outside — the outcasts, the poor, the marginalised, and those without rights, and if the Christmas story tells us anything, it is that they are very, very much invited.