A Joy Filled People
1. Recently, huge Christmas trees can be seen in each land and not just the famous Christmas tree of Rockefeller Center. Also seen on TV are pictures of crowds of people cheering and so full of joy at the lighting [of the trees and all]. The word "joy" certainly matches with Christmas. Even in today's passage of scripture we find in the text a people filled with joy. "The magi were filled with joy as they saw the star," (verse ten). Today, I would like for us to observe three points in particular about these [magi, or wise men, or] astrological scholars who were filled with joy, and I would like for us to think about the joy of Christmas.
The Joy Filled Gentiles
2. First, they were not Jews but were Gentiles. They had come from the east to Jerusalem. They inquired, "Where is the one who had been born as king of the Jews?," (verse two). The Bible says that upon hearing this king Herod "gathered all the priests of the people and the scholars of the law and asked them where the messiah had been born," (verse four). We see that "the king of the Jews" could be put another way as "messiah" (which is "the Christ"). The astrologers had come to visit the messiah.
3. Christmas is celebrated today through out the world. Christmas is a word that comes from "Christ" and "mass (religious service)" and it is a holiday festival in which we celebrate that the messiah or the Christ has come into the world. But, originally it was the Jews and not the peoples of the entire world who had been waiting for the coming of the messiah Christ. The messiah was being waited for by the Jews as "the king of the Jews" who would save them. Even the Bible which announces the coming of the messiah is originally a Jewish composition. The scripture is not a book that dropped out of the heavens, but is a book with a background in the history of Israel. The word "messiah" is the same way, too. But, when the messiah who was expected by the Jews was born, we are told from today's passage of scripture that it was not the aforementioned Jews who came looking for this messiah, but fortune tellers of the stars, the Gentiles who had come from the orient.
4. This emphasis is surprising. I say that because pagan astrologers were the target of scorn and avoidance for the Jews, as variations of divination and spells were originally forbidden in the law of Moses (for instance, Deuteronomy 18:10ff). From the Jews' point of view, these astrological scholars were in a category very far from salvation. But, the Bible tells us that even these [men] as they were had come to visit the Christ and were filled with joy, and you could also say that they are symbolic of the events later in the life of Christ and later in the history of the church. The people who had come joyfully to Christ were the tax collectors and the sinners who were considered far from salvation, and the ones who filled the church were the Gentiles who were thought of as defiled. Those who felt they were close to salvation were instead at enmity with Christ and the church.
5. So, the call of God always reaches far and goes beyond our thinking. Thus, we should never say about ourselves or others that "I'm too unworthy to ever have anything to do with Christ," "That person is so far from salvation." In The Gospel According To Matthew we should keep in mind that it was the Gentile astrologers who took part in the joy of Christmas.
They Were Seeking For The One Worthy Of Their Worship
6. Second, the ones who were filled with joy here were the people who had been seeking for the one worthy of their worship. They said, "As we have seen his star in the east, we have come to worship," (verse two). The word "to worship" originally meant to lay prostrate before a king and to kiss his feet. These scholars would lay themselves prostrate before Him in the true sense of the word and had been making a long trip and seeking for the one to whom they ought to present gifts.
7. The way they looked is contrasted with the way Herod looked [as] he heard the news. What does the text say there? "Having heard this, king Herod felt uneasy. All the people of Jerusalem felt the same way," (verse three). Herod was a political ruler. In a political sense he had the world that he could rule. But, since Herod was not a pure Jew, he didn't have the basic support of the public. Therefore, he always had a feeling of impending crisis of losing his seat of authority. As a result of that, because of his gnawing suspicions, he executed his own wife and wound up executing his own sons as well. So when [nervous] Herod had heard the rumor of the messiah's birth, we can understand how that he became restless because it meant the end of the old world in which he was in charge. In this way then, the arrival of the messiah would not bring joy at all to anyone who was trying to preserve his or her old world and never intended to bow low before the messiah.
8. Herod wasn't the only one who was uneasy. The Bible says, "All the people of Jerusalem felt the same way." It is believed that what the word "Jerusalem" describes here is more about the Jewish society's religious system of control rather than a particular place. It is a symbolic representation of the peoples' priests and the scribes of the law who we find in the text later. In a religious sense, they have a world that they can control. But with the coming of the messiah it would mean that something new was being started by God at a turning point level, and because of that it would mean that the old religious world in which they were rulers was also to usher in its end. Their worrying was of the same type as Herod's. The arrival of the messiah would not bring joy at all to these who were trying to preserve their old world and who never intended to bow low before the messiah. And, here's where the dilemma, which humans experience, can be found. What it means to seek for salvation is no different from seeking for a brand new miracle from God, except that, people don't want to let go of their old worlds. Therefore, when [people] try to preserve the old world, the messiah/the Christ only becomes an ingredient for worry as a threat to [their] old world.
9. But, here in the text there are some astrologers who have come from the east. In the world of the orient where the movement of the stars was believed to have control over human destiny, the astrologers possessed a high social standing for that and the power to rule. We see [their importance] also in that even outside [their country] they were not persons of low position because when they had entered Jerusalem they immediately had an audience with king Herod. But, they had something more important than preserving their old world. It was to find the messiah. It was to discover the one before whose presence they should lay themselves prostrate as He was truly worthy of it. This truly was the matter of highest importance in their lives.
10. The gifts they brought were "gold, frankincense, and myrrh." Some scholars say that these were the tools of the astrologer's trade. That would make sense then, if that were true, that their offerings meant that they were truly offering to the messiah the world of astrology, the old world that they had. Since they sought the one worthy of worship that way, the appearance of the messianic star did not become a cause of worry for them at all. Instead, it became their hope, and the discovery of the messiah became a cause of great joy for them.
They Set Specifically Out On A Trip
11. Third, they set specifically out another way for their native land. In the ancient world of astrology they had their own kind of what we would call academic discipline. They had no doubt searched on the messianic star as covered in all different kinds of documents [of theirs]. Furthermore, in Babylonia, since many Jews had lived there, they had surely searched also on the coming messiah arriving as the king of the Jews. But, they didn't stop there. They rose up and set out to discover the messiah and to worship him. As far as searching goes, we can do it with books before us. But, when it comes to worship we must move our bodies to a place.
12. If that statement is true, then in the scriptures, there are many stories of people who have set deliberately out on a trip. Even Abraham['s story goes] like that. [We've] heard that also with the Israelites when led by Moses. [We've] heard that with Jesus' parable on "The Prodigal Son." The prodigal son wasn't just suffering in his miserable every day living. "He got up from it, and went to his father," (Luke 15:20), says the scripture. One leader in the Finnish Orthodox Church put it like this: "Faith is not obtained by thinking about it but by practicing it. Words and wondering do not teach us God, but the wisdom from experience does. As long as we never open the window, fresh air will never come into the room. As long as we never bathe in the sun, our skin will never bronze. Obtaining faith is also the same way. As the church fathers said, we cannot reach the goal by just waiting and sitting at ease." I would totally agree with that statement.
13. When king Herod asked the question of where the messiah was to be born to the peoples' priests and scribes, they were able to immediately give an answer of "It is [in] Bethlehem of Judea," and they were able to enumerate the words from Micah of the Old Testament as the basis for their answer. When we look at a map, Bethlehem is not that far apart from Jerusalem. At the most it is distance of around ten kilometers. They knew that the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. The astrological scholars knew that they [had to] head for that direction from this point on. But, the scribes of the law weren't about to travel along with [the astrologers]. As a result, they wouldn't have a part in [their] joy either.
14. The astrologers had journeyed a long way. It is beyond our imagination how hard it was to make a journey across the desert two thousand years ago. It must have been a very very long trip at that. After that comes the story of Herod deciding to murder all of the boys under two years of age. Why under two years of age? In verse seven it has, "Herod secretly had the astrological scholars called in and ascertained as to the period of time when the star had appeared," and he made a decision based on that time period. It was two years ago when the star had come out. During these two years they had been keeping up their search. They spent the greatest part of it on the long journey. They wouldn't give up. They kept on searching. Then, at last, they had found the one worthy of their worship. They had great joy in that. Also, after taking part in this joy, they no longer inquired after the stars again, but went back home in obedience to the word of God. They went home through another road according to God's leading.
15. I pray that this Christmas will be a time for many to set out deliberately in a walk towards great joy as they seek for the messiah. Also, I pray that it will be a time for many to walk anew by going on a new and different road in accordance with God's leading.