The Wise Men

Pastor Jon Brohn

Matthew 2:1–11 (NIV) 1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

My dear friends in Christ,

Last week we stood around the manger with shepherds as they asked the question, “What Child is this?” After hearing the angels’ song and seeing the child, just as the angel had told them, the shepherds had to say, “What a child this is! He is Christ, the Lord!” In the last verse of William Dix’ beautiful hymn we sang, “So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh.” His words bring us to wise men who came a great distance to see the one born the king of the Jews. Let’s take a closer look at Matthew 2 and hear how the wise men answer the question, “What Child Is This?”

The story of the wise men begins in Matthew 2. “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? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:1–2 NIV).

Magi—that’s a strange word. It is the title for Babylonian priests, astronomers and astrologers. They were influential advisors to the Babylonian king. During the Jews’ 70 years of exile in Babylon, Daniel rose to the position of chief Magi. He was the lead “wise man” thanks to the knowledge and ability God had given him. Daniel had never been silent about his faith. He shared the Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah. The rest of the Magi heard him speak about his faith and trust in the one who was to come. Perhaps Daniel read the words from our first lesson, Isaiah 60, to them: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60:3 NIV). Over the centuries generations of Magi handed down God’s promises to each generation.

Finally, the time had come. The Magi didn’t have Facebook or Twitter to read about the birth of the promised Messiah. God had something better than social media. He sent a special star to announce the birth of his Son. What that star was, no one knows. I liked how the wise man in our introduction put it. “The star moved by some unseen Force. And Who can move stars but God?” [1] The God who breathed out the stars and called them by name reserved this star for its special purpose—to announce Jesus’ birth and lead the Magi to him.

The Magi set out to find the child. They travelled great distances—finally arriving at the city of Jerusalem. Where else would David’s heir be born? Where else would the one Jacob prophesied about be born? “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.” (Genesis 49:10 NIV).

The Magi arrived in Jerusalem, assuming that everyone had heard about this miraculous birth. No one knew. No one had heard. King Herod’s ears perked up. “Herod was a clever and capable warrior, orator, and diplomat.” He was known for the magnificent structures he had built—theaters and racetracks for entertainment, the port city of Caesarea where some of his architecture still stands today, and the hill fortress of Masada. Herod was the greatest builder in Israel since the days of Solomon!

Herod “was also cruel, merciless, and jealous. He had his wife’s brother, Aristobulus the high priest, drowned and then pretended to mourn at the magnificent funeral he provided. He had his own wife Mariamne killed, as well as her mother and three of his sons. Shortly before his death, he had the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem imprisoned and then gave orders that they should be executed at the moment of his own death. In that way he wanted to ensure that there would be mourning in the city at the time of his death, for he knew that otherwise there might be only rejoicing among the citizenry.” [2] No wonder Herod was upset when he heard the Magi speak of a newborn “king of the Jews,” especially in light of the ancient prophecy, “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel’” (Matthew 2:6 NIV).

What child is this? So far, what have we heard? He was born according to specific, ancient prophecies. His birth, first announced by angels to the lowliest of shepherds, was also heralded by the appearance of a special star, a star that moved through the sky to the right place at the right time. A cruel, heartless king considered him a threat dangerous enough that later on he had every child 2 and younger in Bethlehem killed. What child is this? He seems to be the king that the Magi were looking for!

Yet the debate still goes on. “What child is this?” The world of Jesus’ day had all kinds of answers, and they don’t sound much different from today’s answers. “He’s a powerful teacher—one who teaches with real authority.” “He is a great prophet, perhaps even one of the ancient prophets come back to life.” “He works with the devil to mislead people.” “He’s nothing more than a character in a long, drawn out literary work that means nothing in today’s world.”

We’ve heard them all, and we’re tempted to believe them all. We haven’t seen Jesus. He hasn’t spoken to us in a dream or a vision. Who can say that he’s real? The same is true for this book, the Bible. Who can say it’s really God’s Word? It isn’t signed by the author. NO one can prove it. Why should I believe it when so many other books and even religions make more sense to me?

If God were not God, then maybe his plan would make sense to us, because we’d be his equals. But he is God. His plan will not make sense to us. God said through the prophet Isaiah, “Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish”” (Isaiah 29:14 NIV). Maybe the wise man’s advice is good. Maybe we need to keep our mouths shut, and our eyes and ears open. Then we might see the glory of God in action and believe the wise men’s answer to the question, “What Child Is This?”

Isn’t that what our wise man said? He had no words to answer the question. The answer was in the house where the star led the Magi. “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:10–11 NIV). There is the answer to the question, “What child is this?” The answer was sitting there on Mary’s lap. “He is Jesus.”

He is Jesus. Too simple, isn’t it? What other answer can there be? The Magi recognized Jesus as the answer to all the prophecies they had studied. Jesus was the one to whom the Star had led them, the Star which God had sent. How could they help but worship? Who worships a baby? No one does. We love babies. We play with them. We spoil them. We don’t worship them. The Magi did because Jesus was the true King. Their gifts reflected their worship. Gold—a gift fit for a king. Frankincense—regularly used at the temple. King David described it like this: “May my prayer be set before you like incense” (Psalm 141:2 NIV). Myrrh—an aromatic resin most often used in the embalming process. Did the Magi recognize the sacrifice that this child would make for them? Did they recall Isaiah’s prophetic words? “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth” (Isaiah 53:5,9 NIV). Whether the Magi knew all those details or not, they knew who this child was. Jesus. Savior. King.

“What child is this?” He is the one to whom the Scriptures point. He is Jesus. Our Savior. Our King. No other book, no other religion points to him. No other book or religion offers rescue from this evil world and everything in it without cost. That, as foolish as it sounds to our ears, is exactly what God offers us in this child. When Martin Luther looked at this child in his mother’s arms, here is his answer to the question. “To me there is no greater consolation given to mankind than this, that Christ became man, a child, a baby, playing in the lap...of his most gracious mother. Who is there whom this sight would not comfort? Now is overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you come to this gurgling Baby and believe that he is come, not to judge you, but to save” (Luther; Bainton, 39-40). Here, in this child, is the only way to answer the question, “Is this really God’s Word?” God’s Word points us to Jesus, the only answer, the only solution to sin, Satan’s temptations, and death itself.

Here in this child is the only answer to the threat of nuclear war; to debates over where a nation’s capital should or should not be; to questions of ethics in our government leaders; to our own guilt and shame. Jesus is the answer. The apostle Paul said, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him” (Colossians 1:15,17,19 NIV). This child rules and reigns over the universe, who calls the stars by name and who placed the oceans in their boundaries. This child knit us together inside our mothers and holds us together. He holds the entire universe together. How can we help but worship him?

What child is this? The Magi knew, and without words they bowed to worship their King. Shall we join them in worship? This child is our Savior, our King too!

So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh; Come peasant, king, to own him. The King of kings salvation brings; Let loving hearts enthrone him. Raise, raise the song on high; The virgin sings her lullaby. Joy, joy, for Christ is born, The babe, the son of Mary. [3] Amen.

[1] WCIT—Skitguys.com
[2] Albrecht, G. J., & Albrecht, M. J. (1996). Matthew (p. 26). Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House.
[3] William Dix, What Child Is This, CW 67:3