That I too may worship him
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
(Matthew 2:1-12, 16-18 ESV)
The story of the arrival of the Magi is really two stories that we need to pay attention to. On the one hand this is the story of ancient astrologers – men who spent their lives interpreting signs they saw in the sky. It is from people like these that the grand mythology of the zodiac comes. We have no idea where they actually came from or how many of them there were. Tradition upon tradition has developed them into the three we know. We’ve even given them names.
The legend that there were three and that their names were Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar dates to sometime in the 5th Century. Most scholars believe the claim that there were three Wise Men comes from the mention in our text from Matthew 2 that they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. With a little help from Gian Carlo Menotti, who wrote the operetta Amahl and the Night Visitors for television in 1951, their persons are secure for a few hundred years more, at least.
Whoever they were, there is no question that their lives were forever altered by this one event. Even their most basic beliefs about the universe and the gods whose identities they believed were portrayed in the heavens were shaken by what they saw the day they walked into a house on a street in Bethlehem about 2 years after Jesus was born.
The other story we need to pay attention to is the story of Herod the Great, who ruled as King of the Jews from around 36 BC to 4 BC, when he died in office at the age of 70. Herod himself had no historic claim to the throne of David. He and his family were converts to Judaism, and he had gained his position by being a supporter of those who killed Julius Caesar. For his loyalty he was first appointed as governor of Galilee. Some years later, when it looked like he was going to lose his grip on power, he fled to Rome and was elected King of the Jews by the Roman Senate.
Herod was a builder – probably where he gets the name Herod the Great. He was also a ruthless and brutal dictator who was responsible for the deaths of many of his own countrymen, and as Matthew’s account attests, he was responsible also for the genocide of thousands of innocent children.
Herod’s story and that of the Magi stand intertwined in Matthew 2. If we look at them side by side for a moment, they may touch our hearts on this Christmas Eve. You see, both the Magi and Herod used the same phrase as they spoke about the birth of Christ. The Magi had wandered into Jerusalem and were asking everyone they met, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Later, once Herod has called them to an audience with him, he repeats the phrase his advisors probably had told him; the phrase they themselves probably heard around the city, ““Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”
But Herod had no intention of going the six miles out to Bethlehem. It wasn’t a long way. He could easily have gone himself.
As part of Jesus’ adult ministry, he told a story we know today as the Parable of the Two Sons. It is a quick story. You can find it in Matthew 21. My guess is that Jesus probably told it many times. Jesus said, “A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.”
As far as their religion goes, the Magi were about as far from being Jewish as you could be when they arrived in Jerusalem. Not that they didn’t know about Judaism. These were scholars. There is no question they knew the history and some of the traditions of the Jews. And so they had staked their whole careers, their very lives, on saying “no” to the God of the Jews. Though Herod’s family had converted to Judaism only a generation before, Herod had staked his whole career absolutely on being Jewish. If at any point his loyalty to God had come into question, Herod would have been deposed in a moment. So when you think about it, his whole existence depended on him saying “yes” to God.
How is it that it is only the Magi who finally make it to Bethlehem? It is only they who actually go and worship Jesus. And yet both the Magi and Herod had said, “I want to go that I too might worship him.”
Now, listen carefully for a moment.
Those who worshiped saw. The Magi said, For we saw his star in the East. They saw while Herod sat – even though the star was there for all to see, Herod took no notice of it until it was pointed out to him by the Magi. While they saw, Herod sat and did nothing.
Those who worshiped went. This may sound overly obvious, but they traveled from wherever they came from to Jerusalem and said, We…have come to worship him. Then, they went from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. While they went, Herod waited and did nothing.
Those who worshiped found and fell. The text says they hurried to Bethlehem, “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.” Yes, Herod had said he too wanted to go and worship the child. But to him it was all political. He wasn’t even a real king. He wasn’t even a real Jew. The Magi found and fell. Herod faked and frauded and did nothing.
Those who worshiped rejoiced. When the Magi found Jesus, the text says, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” When Herod found out who Jesus was, he did not rejoice. He recoiled. The Bible says he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. It was all politics to him, and he was King of the Jews, and he was not about to give up that. The Magi rejoiced. Herod recoiled, and still he did nothing.
Finally, those who worshiped opened and offered their gifts to Jesus. This is absolutely key to their worship. Not only did they go to see what had happened in Bethlehem, they offered the very best they had to Jesus, from beginning to end. By contrast, Herod, when he finally did something, ordered the slaughter of every male child in the region who was two years and under, and offended God in every way possible.
You are here tonight because you too are searching for the Christ. Whether you come back tomorrow and the next day and the day after that depends on which brother you turn out to be. It isn’t a long journey from where you live to where Christ is. His star still rises in the East if only you will take the time and do something.
Will you sit and wait and fake and fraud and recoil and then lash out and blame God because you have failed to find? Or will you be like the Magi who saw and went and found and fell and rejoiced and opened and offered? You see, it isn’t enough just to say, “that I too may come and worship him.” You have to put your life on the line… and go.