Every year I go down to the basement storage room and scan the highest shelves. I find the big, well-worn cardboard box marked “Christmas.” I wrestle it down, open it up, and pull out a smaller, more ornate box. Inside are clay figures individually wrapped and carefully put away the previous year. I line them up and do a head count. Everybody’s there: the angel, sheep and shepherds, magi, Mary, Joseph, and the baby. Those figures have been a part of every Christmas I can remember. In fact, it’s so routine that it’s easy to miss the radical inclusiveness of God and the radical news of Christmas—because the magi don’t belong.
Many of us have heard favorite and familiar Bible stories for so many years that we race to the punch line or head straight for the ending that’s no longer a surprise. But when we do that, we miss important things along the way. In Matthew’s story of Christ’s birth, for instance, we’re likely to skip right past this disconcerting line spoken by the magi: “We saw his star when it rose.”
Israel was a tiny island in a vast sea of pagan beliefs. Everyone in the whole known world of the time believed that a person’s fate was written in the stars. They believed that our future was first played out in the heavens before the events followed here on earth. The script had already been written, and there were sorcerers (“magi” shares the same root as the word “magic”) who could read the signs and give people guidance. The Greeks, the Romans, and the Canaanites before them all had sorcerers who claimed to be able to read the stars. But the highest reputation by far for divination belonged to the priests of Babylon—the magi.
Israel was different. God’s people didn’t need to read the stars because the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth, spoke to them. They didn’t need magi because the word of the Lord came to them through prophets and priests. Israel knew that their lives were not written in the stars but in the book of life, which God alone holds. They understood that they were to live their lives not in a stoic kind of fatalism but in a dynamic covenantal relationship with the living God.
A Star Out of Jacob
When Israel settled the Promised Land, they conquered the nations who consulted the stars. As Israel conquered the land of Canaan, all the nations could see that the success of the armies of Israel went far beyond military might. They recognized that a powerful spiritual force was at work. And the Canaanite nations were afraid. The Moabite king, Balaak, was so afraid of Israel and their God that he hired a mercenary prophet, a spiritual expert named Balaam, the son of Beor. Balaam had a reputation for wisdom, powerful spiritual insight, and the ability to manipulate the spiritual realm. He was a magus.
The king of Moab hired Balaam to curse the people of Israel. He wanted Balaam to launch a spiritual attack against whatever spiritual forces were at work in Israel. A remarkable part of the story as it unfolds in Numbers 22 is the fact that Balaam the magus knows about God. That’s not to say he was a worshiper or a disciple—clearly he was not. But he did know that the ultimate power in the spiritual realm belongs to the God of Israel, and that it is futile to oppose him.
In one of the most poignant episodes of the Old Testament, Balaam travels to meet the king of Moab near the battlefield where they can catch a glimpse of the armies of Israel. Along the way, the angel of the Lord appears in the pathway with sword drawn. In a beautiful irony, the donkey sees the angel but Balaam the seer does not. At the angel’s first appearance, the donkey swerves off into a field. Balaam responds by beating the animal. The angel appears a second time in a narrow pass, and this time the donkey veers as far to the other side as possible, crushing Balaam’s foot against the wall. When the angel appears a third time in a spot too narrow to squeeze by, the donkey finally just lies down.
Balaam hits the donkey with his staff. It’s a wizard’s staff, like Gandalf’s staff or Harry Potter’s wand—a tool of the trade for a man of magic and power. But Balaam is using it as a farm implement—a cattle prod. The donkey gets a speaking part, protesting the inhumane treatment he’s getting from the man he has served so faithfully for many years. Then the Lord opens Balaam’s eyes so he can see the angel with sword drawn. The angel says three things to Balaam: First, the donkey was right. Second, I would have killed you and spared the donkey. Third, when you meet the king of Moab, speak only what I tell you. And this is what Balaam the magus says about Israel:
The Lord their God is with them; the shout of the King is among them. God brought them out of Egypt. . . . There is no divination against Jacob, no evil omens against Israel. It will now be said of Jacob and of Israel, “See what God has done!” (Num. 23:21-23).
Those who bless Israel will be blessed, Balaam says, and those who curse Israel will be cursed. And finally, looking into the future, the magus says, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Num. 24:17).
The great Balaam, son of Beor, the mysterious magus of Numbers, said there would be a star—and a ruler would rise out of Israel.
When Israel was later exiled from the Promised Land, consulting the stars was one of the reasons God gave for their punishment. Turn to the New Testament, and every other allusion to magi is unfavorable: the magi are portrayed as power-thirsty, idolatrous con artists (Acts 8:9-24; 13:6-11). Read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians or scan the writings of the church fathers, and you’ll find that the earliest church was in a pitched battle with divination. Yet magi were the first to worship, having read of the coming One in the stars. And they are revealed to us as exemplary disciples.
Following the Magi
The magi don’t belong at the manger because they are foreigners; they’re excluded from the covenant because of race. They shouldn’t be there because they are officially priests of another god who have consulted the stars to find their way. Not just ordinary outsiders—these magi are outsiders in the extreme. But there they are in the story of Jesus’ birth, bringing their gifts and worshiping the King.
The magi’s presence at Jesus’ birth is a declaration of the radical inclusivity of his grace. We all belong in this story, no matter how far off we feel. Whoever you are and wherever you’re from, this Child is for you. Whatever bondage has enslaved you and whatever false idol you worshiped—you belong at the manger. This is why the church celebrated Epiphany centuries before it celebrated Christmas. Not just because the presents show up in this story, but because we all show up in this story. This is where we belong, falling on our knees in worship, adoring the One who has come.
But there is another side to all this, a side Matthew’s earliest readers must have felt profoundly. The story sets up a stark contrast between those who have the Scriptures and fail to worship the Messiah and the magi, who read the stars and find the long-awaited One. Priests of a false god worship at Jesus’ feet while, apart from a few shepherds left unmentioned by Matthew, God’s chosen people miss the great arrival. At Christmastime we sing, “Come and worship; worship Christ the newborn king!” But Matthew’s gospel clearly makes absence a part of the story. There is a whole group of people who do not come and worship.
Here’s a question that begs to be asked when you read the story: Why did no one from Jerusalem follow the magi? Haven’t you ever wondered why no one made the short trip from Herod’s palace to the little town of Bethlehem? If there was even the slightest possibility that the long-expected Savior had arrived, why not go and see? Part of this story is the total lack of interest by those who were supposed to be most interested.
We’re left to ponder how this could happen. It’s possible that the religious establishment thinks the magi are con artists, not worth their time or effort. Or maybe, since the magi had already missed the mark by so much (after all, they ended up in Jerusalem instead of in Bethlehem), nobody believed the magi could actually find the child.
But there’s another possibility. Maybe the faithful in Jerusalem believed that there was no way God could possibly have told “them” something he hasn’t already told “us.” Maybe it was unthinkable that some foreigners, some priests of a false god, were going to get the message when the ones who pored over the Scriptures night and day did not.
Those of us who hold the Scriptures regularly in our hands sometimes believe that we possess a monopoly on the truth and on the revelation of God. We assume that God would not tell an outsider something he has not already told us. But that is a dangerous and false assumption. Both Balaam and the magi show that God is at work in the whole world.
Whatever the reason, the magi leave Jerusalem to continue their search, and nobody else comes along. They find Jesus while the religious community misses this awesome opportunity to meet the newborn King. In his gospel, Matthew is implicitly warning all religious insiders. He is warning the church. And maybe, as I unwrap those three kings each December and set them up around the nativity scene, I need to ask myself this question: Would I tag along with them?
Come and See
The King comes not in a palace but in a manger. The One who deserves all honor and glory did not cling to these things but instead took on the form of a servant. And his natal appearance on our planet seems intentionally hidden among the plain and the poor. Later he would warn us that the kingdom comes like yeast hidden in a lump of dough, like a seed buried in the ground. And he would encourage us to seek his presence by serving the “least of these my brothers.” Until he comes in glory, the “hiddenness” of the kingdom is a given. And we must ask ourselves, am I even looking? Am I paying attention to the testimony of others—even those I assume are unlikely candidates for knowing about God? Would I journey with them?
God is alive and active; God still graciously shows up in our world. If he’s not, then Christmas is not worth celebrating. If he is, then we need to be on the lookout. And we have to be humble because God can show up in unsanctioned ways.
Matthew’s gospel does not have the shepherds, the angel chorus, or even the manger. Everything he wants to convey to us about the coming of Christ and what it means for our world is summed up in this single episode. It is the magi who teach us how to respond, how to prepare for Christmas.
The magi’s journey from Babylon to Bethlehem has been retraced by several people through the ages. Even in modern times, using modern modes of transportation, the trip is long and dangerous. There are many points along the way for second thoughts about turning back. Matthew holds out for us the example of the magi who make an epic pilgrimage to end up before this Child in worship. They persevere even when the trail disappears. They believe that God has done something awesome in the world, that a star has appeared and a scepter has risen and the world will gather to say, “See what God has done!”
To arrive there, to throw ourselves down in worship and to respond to this awesome grace with costly gifts is the calling of all true disciples.
Those magi figures at the nativity remind us that this is a journey of a lifetime, a journey that will take dedication and perseverance. God did not write out the script far away in the stars; he has shown up right here among us. The story of Christ’s birth is not a script to be feared or dumbly played out. It is a story still being told.
Our approachable God invites us to come, for he can be found and worshiped and adored. We belong there at the manger.
- In what sense don’t the magi “belong” at the manger, according to Kuyvenhoven?
- “The magi’s presence at Jesus’ birth is a declaration of the radical inclusivity of his grace,” says Kuyvenhoven. What does that suggest about who belongs (or does not belong) in the story of our Savior’s birth?
- Kuyvenhoven contrasts the response of the religious establishment and the magi to the reports of Jesus’ birth. What can we learn from this?
- “God is alive and active; God still graciously shows up in our world.” What signs of God’s presence can you see in the world today? In your own life?
- How is the story of Christ’s birth still being told?
Enjoyed this article?
Don’t miss this week’s must-read articles:
- Tell A Better Story
- ‘Rebirth’ for a Wisconsin Church
- Book review: A Church Called Tov, by Laura Barringer and Scot McKnight