Matthew 2:1-12: Who were those strangers who traveled so far to find the new king? They are not Jewish—that is part of the amazing revelation, or epiphany, provided by Matthew’s gospel account—they were Gentiles who knew enough about the stories of this coming king to be willing to make a long trek, but did not know the Hebrew scriptural prophecy about the exact location of the birth of the new king. (That is why they had to stop in Jerusalem to check with the current king, Herod.)
Maybe they were kings. Kings who traveled from Sheba (on the southern tip of Saudi Arabia, some 1200 miles through the desert by camel? Or kings who traveled from Tarshish, perhaps a great distance across Mediterranean Sea by boat. Psalm 72:10 sets us up to define the visitors as Gentile Kings, basically a list of blessings for the king of Israel. Or perhaps the coming king as in a Messiah king?
Listen to the way this king is blessed in the words of the psalmist: “may he judge with righteousness and justice, may he defend the cause of the poor, may he deliver the needy, and crush the oppressor. May his days flourish with righteousness and abound in peace forever. May he have dominion from sea to sea.” And now the clincher—v. 10-11… “may the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service”… may gold of Sheba be given to him. And in the words of the prophet Isaiah—nations will come to his light and kings to the brightness of his dawn—that means Gentiles, non-Jews. Hmm, could these Gentile strangers from the East have traveled so far—or maybe not quite so far as Sheba, but clearly from a great distance– to find this new king, bringing him precious gifts? Perhaps.
Or maybe they were wise men? Or, magi, which is the Greek word used by Matthew, and is only found in the chapter we read from this morning. It comes from the same root as the word translated magic. Some translations call the magi scholars. Some call them sages. Coming from the East, maybe Arabia or Mesopotamia, would not have been such a surprise to people in Israel. They knew the wise men who had developed into a professional class of advisors and guides for the king, likely working along with the priests and the prophets who were part of the king’s court. There was also an international wisdom movement which included scholars in Egypt, Persia and Babylonia well before the birth of the new king. The magi brought gifts of gold, a gift for a king; frankincense, imported from Saudi Arabia or even India, a gift for a deity; and myrrh, an embalming spice, a gift for someone who is going to die.
Or maybe they were astrologers? Clearly they studied the skies, and were convinced that the new king’s star had risen and would guide them on their travels. Was it an obviously larger or brighter star? Was it a star with a tail like a comet, as in the Amahl story? Matthew does not say. It does seem to be a moving star/comet, which traveled across the sky until it stopped over the house where the new king was to be found.
We don’t know their names from the scriptural account. Post Biblical tradition gave them names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, and many people refer to these visitors by these names, including Giancarlo Menotti who wrote Amahl. We don’t know how many visitors there were either. We imagine there were three due to the three gifts mentioned by Matthew. Could be. Or maybe there were 2 or 8. We truly don’t know if they were kings or magi or astrologers, or perhaps some combination of all three. For us it does not really matter. What matters is that they were Gentiles, the first Gentile visitors to the new king, the king of kings, King Jesus the Messiah. What matters is that this new king was born for the world, not just for the people of Israel. What matters is that we are included as recipients of that world wide gift. What matters is that wise men and women and children still seek him. In the words from the refrain of One King, by Point of Grace: “One king held the frankincense, one king held the myrrh, One king held the purest gold, And one king held the hope of the world.”
As we continue our Christmas celebrations, and so we should until the 12th day of Christmas, January 6, I invite you to pay attention to what matters. To wade through the extra trappings that surround our family and even our church celebrations of the new kings’ birth. To see that the birth of this new king was the gift of love for us all. I really like the Christmas version of 1 Corinthians 13:4-8: “Love stops the cooking to hug the child. Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the spouse. Love is kind, even when harried or frazzled or tired. Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens. Love doesn’t yell at the kids or grandkids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way. Love doesn’t give only to those who are able to give in return, but rejoices in giving to those who can’t. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. X boxes will break, gold chains will get lost, golf clubs will rust. But giving the gift of love will endure.” Thanks be to God for the love gift of Jesus, the new king, the Messiah for all of the world.