Right Under Their Noses

Matthew 2:1-12

By Chuck Griffin

Today and tomorrow, we will consider the Epiphany, which marks the end of the Christmas season. The church traditionally associates the arrival of the wise men with this moment, officially on Jan. 6 each year.

From a distance, the wise men saw so much. At the same time, Jewish King Herod and his best advisers were oblivious to the most important moment the people of Jerusalem could imagine, the coming of the Messiah just six miles away from Herod’s court.

How do you see so much from afar? How do you miss such a big event when it’s happening right under your nose?

The wise men, most likely astrologers who advised rulers living in the area of modern-day Iraq, responded to a sign in the sky by packing their camels and making a months-long journey to Jerusalem. For them, whatever was going on in Jerusalem was huge, and they needed to get there despite the hardships.

When the wise men arrived, however, no one in Jerusalem seemed to know what they were talking about. Herod had to ask the wise men when the sign in the sky had occurred, despite having consulted with his chief priests and scribes.

So much for the “Little Drummer Boy” television version of Christ’s birth, where a star shines so brightly that its tail points toward the manger like a neon sign at a roadside motel.

The best astronomical explanation for the wise men’s sign in the sky probably lies in a series of conjunctions involving Venus and Jupiter near the constellation Leo and its bright star, Regulus. Such conjunctions would have screamed “a king is born in Judah” to these astrologers while going unnoticed by others. It’s also possible the star was a supernatural event, unusual in that it was intended for the wise men and no one else.

Regardless of exactly what motivated the wise men, it seems God spoke to them in signs for a simple reason. They were seekers. They spent their lives anticipating great events, looking for signs in the skies. God grants guidance to those who actively seek his will.

I’m not suggesting everyone take up astrology to hear from God. In this case, I think God simply was speaking to these seekers in a language they understood.

They also were the kind of men who were not afraid to go out into the world. These weren’t ivory-tower academics. They knew how to get those camels across the desert; with God’s guidance, they knew how to deal with the evil, wily Herod, heading home “by another way” to keep the Christ child safe.

And perhaps most importantly, they were ready to respond to the truth that had been revealed to them. They accepted God’s revelation, and they acted accordingly, honoring the Savior of the world.

The wise men stand in stark contrast to the corrupt King Herod, a man who sought his own glory rather than that of the God he should have been serving as the leader of the Jews. In many worldly ways, Herod was a great king. Certainly, he was a great builder, expanding the Second Temple and building the fortress at Masada.

He also was mercilessly shrewd, murdering his own wife and two of his children when he began to consider them threats. That ruthlessness is seen again in what we call “the massacre of the innocents,” the slaughter of all children in Bethlehem under the age of 2 in an attempt to kill the Messiah. Blinded by his worldly concerns, Herod could not have seen God’s glory if the baby Jesus had been born at his feet.

It’s not hard to see which model we should follow. Like the wise men, Christians should be seekers of God’s truth, listening for God’s sometimes subtle answers.

As seekers who begin to hear, it also is important to respond bravely. Do we put our possessions and even our lives at risk? What is our equivalent of getting on a camel and riding into the desert?

I would like to know more of the wise men’s story. I feel certain they were changed forever by the experience. For some reason God chooses not to give us those details through Scripture, however.

At least we are allowed to make a similar journey. We can be wise men and women ourselves, pursuing and worshiping Jesus as the Christ.

Dear Lord, show us the way. Amen.

From Glory to Horror to Hope

Matthew 2:13-18

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

So strange—at this point in the Christmas story, we’ve heard of angelic announcements and a virgin birth, events so miraculous they’re highlighted in the night sky, drawing wise men from distant lands. And then this horror happens.

As terrible as the slaughter of these innocent children is to contemplate, perhaps the account does help us process the horrors we have seen. It’s not unusual for people to ask, “How can God let such things happen?”

Well … evil remains in the world, doesn’t it? Satan and all beings who follow Satan’s lead see their impending destruction in Christ’s arrival. Their ongoing response is one of fury, an unleashing of the irrational anger at the core of their being.

Like Herod, any self-centered human can experience how frustration leads to anger, and anger can turn violent. There’s also a general brokenness to the world, the result of uncountable generations of sinful decision-making going back to the original break between humanity and God.

So even at the time of the birth of Christ, horrors persisted. And horrors will persist, for a time.

God has provided the solution, though. Somehow, the solution even will be mysteriously retroactive, wiping away every tear, to quote Revelation 21:4. We also can look to the concluding verses in Jeremiah 31:15-17, to which Matthew alluded after telling the tale of the Bethlehem children:

“There is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.”

The work of Christ does not yet relieve us of the horrors we have witnessed or experienced, but it will. That great truth, mysterious as it is, should give us hope in all circumstances.

Lord, as we confront the dark realities of our world, give us a deeper understanding of how very temporary you will prove them to be. Amen.