Lent Devotional 49


We are now going to do something rather different. We have followed the story which Matthew tells, the story of Jesus from before his birth to after his resurrection. But Matthew was of course writing for Christians who already knew more or less 'what happened'. They were already people who believed in Jesus, that he had died to rescue them from sin and death, that he had been raised again and was now the world's true Lord. How would they then read Matthew's gospel, not just as a faithful account of what had happened in the past, but as a blueprint and set of clues for how they should be living as followers of this risen Jesus today?

I have chosen four passages that we haven't looked at in detail earlier in the book, to take us forward from the Easter story itself into the much longer Easter story that continues to this day. Jesus' Easter people — you and me, in other words — now read the gospels in order to discover, again and again, the presence and power and leading of Jesus in and through our lives and witness. And we begin with that wonderful story about the three wise men.
Here, Matthew is saying, Jesus was already mysteriously revealed as 'Lord of the world' — even though the present Jewish ruler, the sad and bad old king Herod, had no interest in such things except to kill enough people (in this case, little babies) to make sure nobody would upset his own shaky grip on power. Wise men from the East: we are not told here that they were 'kings', though later legend has seen them as such.

Certainly Matthew intends them as representatives of the 'many who will come from east and west' to share the ancient Jewish dream of God's kingdom, and all because of Jesus (see 8.11). By the same token, he is seeing Herod as typical of those 'sons of the kingdom' who will, at the same time, miss out on the promise. As John the Baptist would say in the next chapter, God can raise up 'children of Abraham' from these stones (3.9).

The story of the three wise men, then, can be seen in the light of Easter as a great encouragement to the little church as it sets off on its mission to the wider world: the wider world has already heard about him and begun to come looking for him! But here there is a delicate balance to be kept. Some, eager to show how much God loves the whole world, have seen all non-Jewish religions and philosophies as equally valid, merely needing to be encouraged and developed. But that's not how the story works.

The wisdom of the East, including the stargazing which was such a major part of ancient learning, had brought the wise men to the point where they were ready to travel to the land of the Jews to find the new king. But they needed help to find the right spot. Help was at hand in the form of the Jewish scriptures. They and they alone provided the clue to Bethlehem. Without them, the wise men had simply ended up at the wrong address — a dangerous place to be, as anyone in Herod's court could have told them. But, with great irony, the chief priests and scribes who have told the travellers where to find the royal child have no interest in going themselves to see whether it's true. They assume it isn't — until, later, Herod smells a rat and sends in his thugs to kill the babies.

Matthew seems to be saying, to his resurrection-based church, that their mission will remain rooted in the Jewish scriptures, and that they will be able with their help to draw the wisdom of the world into homage to the world's rightful king. But he is also warning them that they must not expect all the Jewish people to join in. As Paul would put it, God has subjected all people to disobedience, so that he might have mercy on all. The good news of Jesus, his kingdom-message, cross and resurrection, is always humbling to all people. It is the place where the scriptures and the wisdom of the world can meet and celebrate, but it will take something more as well. The 'wise men' could just as well have been called 'the humble men', or indeed 'the obedient men'. It's people like that who could then be called 'the overwhelmed-with-joy' people.

Risen Lord, give us a vision of the whole world coming to worship at your feet, and enable us to play a part in bringing that to reality.

Matthew 2:1-12