Promoting Christ-centred Biblical Ministry

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reprinted from the December 2000 edition of Essentials  
  What did the Wise Men See?

Andrew Katay

Andrew Katay works at St Barnabas' Broadway in inner city Sydney.
  Happy families  
  You can imagine the scene, can't you. Perhaps it's some time after the child was born, weeks or even months; after all, in a gruesome imitation of Pharaoh centuries beforehand, also at the birth of a leader of God's people, Herod later ordered all babies under 2 years old to be killed. But perhaps it's his actual birthday, as our hymns and carols imply. His mother reclines, exhausted from her ordeal, with the little boy contented, feeding.  
  It's night now, with stars shining brightly in the dark sky. Suddenly, even frighteningly, there is a bang on the door, and outside are some men, obviously foreigners, exotic and foreboding. They ask to come in, and what could she do? She could hardly turn them away, hospitality was so important, and to give them the flick would be so rude, so shameful; besides they were obviously completely full of joy and delight. She had had visitors aplenty that day, bringing their congratulations and gifts, but it was late and they were unknown.  
  But their Persian faces and strange clothes were the least surprising of all the events that night. As they came in and took their overgarments off, they paid no attention to the offer of food and drink, but were transfixed by her boy. They just looked at him, and then dropped to their knees, and then on their faces, prostrated, doing obeisance, to the little kid, as his mother looked on mystified. And to top it off, they opened boxes, full of gold and wonderfully smelling ointments, obviously expensive, and had placed them before him, before this boy, a mere baby.  
  Such is the scenario that Matt chapter 2 presents us with. And in some ways, it's not too far from what might happen at any other birth of any other child. When my son, Miles was born, we had heaps of visitors, from the rushing grandparents and aunts to the friends and acquaintances, most of them bringing gifts and most of them very happy for us. Change the buildings and the technology, and in many ways the stories are not too dissimilar. With one major exception - the guests of which we read in Matt 2 pay homage to that child.  
  Paying Homage  
  And paying homage is the point of the story - you see that Matthew uses the word 3 times, to make it perfectly clear. The wise men, magi, most likely astrologers or sorcerers or magicians, (it's where we get our word from), come to Jerusalem in response to a remarkable zodiacal occurrence, and in v. 2 indicate that paying homage is the purpose of their visit. "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews, for we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." Similarly, when the brutal and cunning King Herod hears of this, and realises the potential threat to his dictatorship, he does what he can to find out the exact details of this king's birth - the where from the complicitous chief priests and the scribes of the people, and the when from the wise men, after which he sends them on their way with instructions, v. 8: "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." And then finally after taking the short walk to Bethlehem, 8 km south of Jerusalem and locating this one for whom they have searched, v. 11 they "Kneel down and pay him homage". The word most often means in the Bible worship of God, and although it can mean simply the homage offered to a king, since kings and emperors often enough saw themselves as gods, in the end there is not much difference. These wise men, perhaps with one gift each so that there are three of them, worship the baby before them.  
  Now, as wonderful as the birth of my son was, and I wouldn't want you to underestimate that, no one actually got down on their knees and then face and worshipped him, and had anyone attempted to do so, I would have interrupted in most likely a violent manner. Why? Because to worship other than God is false worship, idolatry, a blasphemous insult to God. Which is precisely why Dr Barbara Thiering wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald (20/12/97):  
  "If this Christmas I were in one of those glorious Gothic churches, I might well stand with the congregation and say, 'I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth' … when however, the congregation came to the next words, 'And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary', I would perform an act of religion. I would quietly leave by the side door, not wanting to worship an idol. Jesus, a man who lived in Israel 2000 years ago, was someone whom I admire very much, for what he did politically. But I will not worship a human being".  
  The issues here are clearly delineated, then wrongly pursued. As we have sung hymns of praise to Jesus, as in just a moment we pray to and through and in the name of Jesus, as we in our own context kneel down and pay him homage just as those strange men so many years ago did, are we in fact committing an act of idolatry, putting a mere human being in the place of God? For if that child was not and is not God come amongst us, God in human flesh, then that is exactly what we are doing.  
  Of course, I would suggest that if Dr Thiering really did have the profound respect for Jesus that she professes, then she would not baulk at the second half of the creed, just as Jesus did not baulk at the worship offered him by his disciples after his resurrection. You see, Jesus' own words and deeds leave you little option other than to conclude that he is God amongst us - his compelling claim to be the only one who knows the Father and makes him known, and so to be the bread and light of life; who can say of the Old Testament, you have heard it said of old, but I say to you, and get away with it as one speaking with authority. And his deeds, his manifesting the kingdom of God, giving sight to the blind, enabling the lame to walk, cleansing the lepers, healing the deaf, raising the dead and preaching good news to the poor; these words and these deeds are utterly compelling for those with ears to hear and eyes to see. And chief of all are his death and resurrection, his death for our sins, that great act of obedience to his heavenly father, and his resurrection, the Father's great act of vindication of his beloved Son. No, those with respect for Jesus are driven to conclude that he is indeed God with us, driven beyond respect to worship.  
  Without that confession, there is no Christianity. Take God out of Jesus and there's nothing left. All you have is another in the long line of self help gurus, another claimant to speak on behalf of someone else, another purveyor of the latest spirituality. Take God out of Jesus and there is no grace, only demand. No self giving goodness of God, like that of the shepherd for whom God's people longed, the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, who actually gets in amongst it and does something for his people, fighting their fight for them. Instead, only the demand of God, that you perform and satisfy him, that you measure up, and if you don't then you can justly be consigned to the scrapheap. Without Christmas, there is no Christianity.  
  But with the baby who can be worshipped without idolatry, with Immanuel, God with us, we have not just someone's theories about God, not just someone's teaching about God which might be right for you if it suits, but God revealing God, God himself disclosing to us who he is, and perhaps more importantly, how he is towards us, full of love and grace. And it means that we have not just self help, but God help, God himself come as one of us to save us because God is the only one who can save us from our real enemies, from sin and the devil and death. It means we have God in Christ who can go to death and not be consumed by it, but rather consume it in the power of his own divinity.  
  Who do you see?  
  Did the wise men see all this? I don't know. Certainly they saw a confused and startled mother with a helpless child, but in reality they saw much more than that. Somehow, in and through the compromised mix of astrology and Old Testament they saw that the baby before them was one worthy to be worshipped, one before whom all they could do was pay homage. What do you see? Have you been so jaded by the sheer familiarity and commercialisation of the thing that all you see is plastic nativity scenes with sale price tags alongside? It wouldn't be hard to sympathise if that were the case. But I invite you to see more deeply, more truly; to the God who is present with that baby, to the God who is incarnate, enfleshed, made one of us in that baby. Will you see again this Christmas the wonder of grace, the grace of God which came down as one of us, for us, to do battle with our enemies and to bring us home to God. Will you see Emmanuel, and worship?  

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