The King Has Come!

Matthew 2:1-6

We begin with the words of Flannery O’Connor: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” Truth is truth whether we like it or not. The fact that I personally may object to the truth doesn’t matter. Those things that are objectively true remain true even if I doubt them or deny them or even if I rail against them. This is not a popular position to take in these days when “truth” is a jump ball determined by the latest Gallup Poll. If 51% of the people believe something, then it must be true. Or so we think.

But truth isn’t that easily pigeonholed. Above the main entrance to the University of Queensland in Australia, these words are engraved in stone: “Great is truth and mighty above all things.” Which strikes me as exactly the sort of exalted saying that you would find at the entrance to a university, and it is also the sort of old-fashioned idea that no one would choose today. It’s too confining, too narrow in its implication that there is such a thing as “truth” that you can find by searching. And it implies a sort of imperialism of ideas that runs counter to the anything-goes trend of the times. But it does remind us of the words of Jesus in John 8:32, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (ESV). It is truth that sets us free, not our opinions about the truth.

Pontius Pilate and Ernest Hemingway

Speaking for postmodernists everywhere, Pontius Pilate asked Jesus a question that resonates across the centuries: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Little did he know that the Truth was standing in front of him. Jesus himself had earlier declared, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). By those words our Lord indicated that truth is more than a series of propositions to be studied and memorized. Truth is also exceedingly personal. If you want to know the ultimate truth about life and death and the way to the Father, you need to know Jesus Christ. To know him is to know the truth. If you miss him, you’ve missed the ultimate truth of the universe.

But Pilate still has his friends today. Let me quote from one of Oak Park’s favorite sons, Ernest Hemingway. He was born in our village, grew up just a few blocks from here, and in 1917 graduated from the same high school most of our students attend. Here is his take on the question of truth: “There’s no one thing that is true. They’re all true.” Hmmm. The more I ponder that, the stranger it seems. Earlier this week a friend put a clipping from the December 17, 2001 Newsweek in my mailbox at church. It contains a quote from the speech given by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Evidently he had also been ruminating on the possibility of discovering the truth. Alas, he does not sound sanguine at all. “The idea that there is one people in possession of the truth, one answer to the world’s ills or one solution to humanity’s needs has done untold harm throughout history.” This is the sort of statement that invites simultaneous agreement and disagreement. But when you are through parsing it, you eventually conclude that he agrees more with Ernest Hemingway than with Flannery O’Connor.

“That’s What the Bible Says.”

As for me, I’m going to stand with Jesus on this one. A few days ago, I watched an interview with Anne Graham Lotz on the Fox News Channel. At one point one of the interviewers tried to trap her with a hard question about those who died at the World Trade Center on September 11. “Since you believe that you have to accept Christ to go to heaven, doesn’t that mean that the Jews and Muslims who died that day will go to hell?” I should pause here to say that when you go to “Interview School,” they teach you to run away from questions like that because you just can’t win. Anything you say can and will be used against you. Evidently Anne Graham Lotz skipped class the day they talked about this because she didn’t flinch and she didn’t change the subject. She quoted John 14:6 and declared that Jesus is the only way of salvation. She said we must believe in him to go to heaven. The interviewer tried again: “So you believe you have to accept Christ to go to heaven?” With a composed smile she simply replied, “That’s what the Bible says.” The interviewer didn’t have an answer for that one.

And that brings me to our text for today. Matthew 2:1-6 tells the mysterious story of the visit of the Magi to King Herod in Jerusalem. On one level this text is a very familiar story that most of us have seen in every Christmas pageant we’ve ever attended. We know all about the “Three Wise Men” because we grew up singing “We Three Kings.” And we know they found Jesus in the stable because that’s the way it is in every pageant: shepherds on the left, baby Jesus in the middle, and three nervous little boys dressed up like oriental punk rockers bringing gold and two others gifts they can’t pronounce. They’re usually wearing funny-looking hats, which help you know they are the Wise Men and not the shepherds. Most of this is simply tradition. The Bible doesn’t say there were only three Wise Men (or Magi). That number comes from the three gifts they brought—gold, frankincense and myrrh. (Perhaps you’ve seen the “Far Side” cartoon that shows a fourth Wise Man being turned away because he brought fruitcake as his gift.) And Matthew 2 makes it clear that the Magi found Jesus in a house in Bethlehem, meaning that they arrived some time after his birth, perhaps a few days or a few weeks or even up to a year later.

The main purpose of our text is to not to tantalize us with these details. Matthew 2 is all about truth. It brings us face to face with how different people respond when confronted with the truth of Jesus Christ. Some are positive, some are negative, and some people simply aren’t interested at all.

I. Some People Seek the Truth. 1-2

The story of the visit of the Magi is found only in Matthew’s gospel. All that we know about them we find in chapter 2. They show up in verse 1 and disappear in verse 12, leaving behind many unanswered questions:

1. Who are they and where did they come from?

2. How many were there?

3. What is the star they saw and how did it lead them to Bethlehem?

4. How long after the birth of Jesus did they arrive in Jerusalem?

5. How did they know that the baby was going to be the king of the Jews?

Because of the mystery and the unanswered questions, great legends grew up about them. Over the centuries, the Wise Men were given names—Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. They were venerated as saints and a tradition arose called the Adoration of the Magi. In fact, if you go to the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, you will find relics alleged to be the remains of the Wise Men.

It all begins this way: “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?’” (Matthew 2:1-2). Notice that the Wise Men are called “Magi from the east.” That’s all we are told about them. The term “Magi” is ultimately a Persian word that referred to a special class of priests in the Persian Empire. We know from other sources that the Magi had existed for hundreds of years before the time of Christ. They had their own religion (they are usually thought to have been followers of Zoroastrianism), their own priesthood, and their own writings. The book of Daniel makes it clear that they existed in his day and it even seems that Daniel was appointed head over the cast of the Magi in the time of King Darius.

Who were the Magi? They were the professors and philosophers of their day. They were brilliant and highly educated scholars who were trained in medicine, history, religion, prophecy and astronomy. They were also trained in what we would call astrology. In our day astrology has gotten a deservedly bad rap. But in the beginning astrology was connected with man’s search for God. The ancients studied the skies in order to find the answers to the great questions of life—Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? There is a difference between astronomy and astrology. Astronomy is the science of the study of the stars. Astrology is the belief that there is a connection between the position of the stars and human destiny. The Magi were experts in both astronomy and astrology and claimed to be able to divine the future.

The important fact for us to know is that they were highly influential in Persia. They were in fact advisors to the king. While they were not kings, it would not be wrong to call them king-makers because they functioned as political advisors to the Persian rulers. Finally, they were highly educated men who thought deeply about life and consequently it is perfectly legitimate to call them “Wise Men.”

Looking for a Baby

But why have they traveled so far from home? It was 1,000 miles from Persia to Israel. Why have they made such a treacherous journey? The answer is, they have come to see the baby born king of the Jews. This is fascinating. They knew a baby had been born but they didn’t know where. They knew he was a king but didn’t know his name. So they come to Jerusalem—the capital city—seeking help. They also assume that everyone must know about this baby. But a great surprise awaits them.

We are greatly helped by this fact: We know that the Jews and Persians had intermingled for at least 500 years. It seems that the Magi considered Daniel (who was a good Jew) as one of their own. Since the time of Daniel, the Persians had known of the Jewish expectation of a Messiah. It is possible that they even knew from the prophecy of the “70 weeks” in Daniel 9 the approximate time of his appearing. What they did not know was the exact time. When they saw the star, they knew the time had come.

Now lest that seem like mere speculation, let me put it this way: Everything we know about the Jews, the Magi, and the history of the ancient near east makes this story very likely:

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