God leads us in odd ways, sometimes. I began this week with no real idea what I was going to preach on; when I did my sermon planning for this past year, I hadn’t been able to settle on anything for this Sunday, so I’d left it blank. I had ideas floating around, but nothing fit; and then I sat down Tuesday, and God just put it together for me. There were several things that contributed to that, including the fact that I’d recently been reading about the new movie version of John Le Carré’s book Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I’ve never read the book and don’t know much about it, but the title is resonant; and as this passage from Matthew was bouncing around in my mind, it bounced into that title with a loud clang, and suddenly I had a sermon title.
Which might not seem like a big deal (and often it isn’t), but in this case, it was, because it gave me a framework for the passage. You see, there are really four characters in this section of Matthew, the four in the sermon title; and there’s something rather shocking about this combination of the four of them, something which familiarity has dulled in our minds. I was thinking about this, too, thanks to a post on the Desiring God blog from Christmas Eve titled “We Three Kings of Orient Aren’t.” “We Three Kings” is a marvelous carol for many reasons, which is why we’ll be singing it later, but the people who came to visit Jesus weren’t kings, they were magi. Which I knew, but I hadn’t fully registered the significance of that until I read this:
They are pagan astrologers, not too far from what we’d call sorcerers and wizards.
Gandalf and Dumbledore are coming to worship the baby Jesus.
These magi are not respected kings but pagan specialists in the supernatural, experts in astrology, magic, and divination, blatant violators of Old Testament law—and they are coming to worship Jesus. . . .
The whole Bible, Old Testament and New, plainly condemns the kind of astrology, stargazing, and dabbling in the dark arts typical of the magi. In biblical terms, the magi are plainly marked as “sinners.”
The magi are the spiritual descendants of the priests of Egypt who struggled against Moses and Aaron before the Exodus, and of the Chaldean magicians who opposed Daniel in the presence of Nebuchadnezzar and Darius. Really, to say Gandalf and Dumbledore are coming to Jesus isn’t strong enough, given the biblical view of these folks; this is more like Salazar Slytherin and Severus Snape. Everywhere else in Scripture, these people feature as the enemies of God. Yet here, they come to worship Jesus. What’s going on?
Two things. One, we have a gospel inversion going on here—God’s work of deliverance inverting the established order, as both Mary and Zechariah prophesied. Who are the characters here? On one hand, you have Herod the king, and you have the religious leaders—the priests and the seminary professors. These are the people who have the power and the position; they’re the ones who are supposed to be leading Israel in the ways of God. But the king is a false king—installed by Rome, holding power through military conquest, with no real legitimate claim to the throne in Jerusalem; in consequence, he’s becoming increasingly paranoid about his position. Somewhere in here he will execute his favorite wife on the barest suspicion of treason (she was innocent). And the priests aren’t challenging him, they’re serving him.
On the other hand, you have these foreign wizards, and you have Jesus, born among the animals. The wizards are hardcore pagan bad guys, and Jesus is so insignificant as to be completely beneath official notice. In the normal course of the story, they would be the threat to the people of God. Instead, Jesus is the true king, and the wizards are coming to worship him, while the priests of his people are indifferent and the man on the throne is the true enemy. The characters don’t line up in predictable fashion, because God is doing something very, very different from anything he’s done before; the previous rules and storylines don’t necessarily apply.
Two, that fact tells us something important about what God is doing. To understand what, let’s look first at Micah 5. Bethlehem, you who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, are nevertheless not least among them, because out of you will come the king of Israel—and not just any king, but the one “whose coming forth is from old, from ancient days.” This is the Messiah God had promised, the Deliverer, the Redeemer, who would gather all the people of God back to Israel, who would rule over them as a king faithful to God, and who as a result would bring them peace and security.
What’s in view here is more than merely national and political deliverance, as we can see from the vision of Isaiah 60. The glory of the Lord rises among his people, drawing all the nations, their kings coming humbly to Israel, bringing their wealth. Note in particular verse 6—the NIV says that they will come from Sheba “bearing gold and incense,” but in fact that last word is more specific in the Hebrew: it’s frankincense. The magi aren’t actually kings, and they aren’t from Sheba, but their appearance with gifts of gold and frankincense is another sign that Jesus is indeed the Messiah—and more, that he is the glory of the Lord promised in Isaiah 60, rising among his people to be their light.
That’s not all that’s going on here, though; there’s one more thing that must be said. It’s foreshadowed in the reference to Micah—the king who comes from Bethlehem will cause “the rest of his brothers [to] return to the people of Israel”—but it really comes into focus in verse 15, in this strange citation of Hosea 11:1. Pull out your Bibles and let’s look at this a moment. The chapter begins, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Hosea is clearly talking about the Exodus—so why is Matthew applying this verse to Jesus? And why is he using it here, when Jesus and his family are heading down to Egypt, rather than a few verses later when they return?
The second question is no big deal, I think, since Matthew makes it clear in verse 15 that Jesus’ stay in Egypt was temporary. The first is the important one. If you look a little further on in Hosea, at verses 10-11, you see the prophet says that the Lord will roar like a lion, and his children will come to him: “They will come from Egypt, trembling like sparrows, from Assyria, fluttering like doves.” It’s a promise of a second exodus, a new exodus, in which the Lord will bring his people back from exile as he brought them up from Egypt, and establish them again in their land as he had done before.
The key here is that at the time of Jesus’ birth, those promises had really only been partly fulfilled. God’s people had indeed returned, mostly, from their places of exile to Jerusalem and their homeland—but when they returned, they were still a conquered people, and so they had mostly remained. Certainly they had seen nothing like Micah 5 or Isaiah 60. As such, there was a sense that the new exodus God had promised was still to come; that was why they were waiting for the Messiah, the prophet like Moses who would lead the new exodus as Moses had led the first.
This is what Matthew’s on about in verse 15; it’s a form of what we call typological interpretation. Jesus is the new Moses, the one who will lead his people out of slavery, and more than that, he’s the new Israel. He is the one who will perfectly keep the law Israel could never keep; he’s the one who will perfectly fulfill the mission Israel could never fulfill. And where God called Israel his son because he had chosen them as his people, Jesus of course is God’s Son at a much, much deeper level. And so just as Israel, in its infancy as a nation—just one large extended family—went down into Egypt, then was brought back up into the Promised Land in God’s good time, so Jesus will go down into Egypt as an infant, and then return.
In other words, in this passage we see Matthew laying down some of the evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus is the true Israel; he is the new Moses, the one who will lead the new exodus of his people; he is the one whose light will draw all the nations, at whose feet kings will lay down their wealth, including gold and frankincense. He will be opposed by the powerful, who will scruple at nothing to strike him down, but they will not succeed; though they will murder the innocent—first the babies of Bethlehem, then in the end Jesus himself—yet they will not silence him, for he will rise again from the dead.
And in the end, no one who truly sees him will be able to stand indifferent; the priests were at his birth, but they wouldn’t be once they really got to know him. In the end, either you see him like Herod, a mortal threat, or like the shepherds and the magi—and you worship. There’s nothing else to do.