Did you know it’s possible to see something without really seeing it? To be in the presence of something or someone, without really being present?
Consider this picture, for example.
It was taken a few years ago in Boston at the premier of a Johnny Depp film. Notice the excitement on everyone’s faces as Johnny Depp and his co-stars walked onto the red carpet. But notice also, almost everyone is seeing . . . but they’re not really seeing. They’re present, but they’re not really present. Except for one elderly lady leaning on a fence.
While everyone around her has their eyes fixed on their cell phone screens, she’s looking at the movie stars in real life. She’s really seeing because she’s undistracted by her phone.
There are several lessons this lady can teach us, but I want us to think about one way we’re just like the rest of the crowd in this picture. Far too often we see God’s Word without really seeing it. Far too often we’re in His presence without really being present. I’m sure our cell phones and other devices are often part of the problem. But all too often, we’re distracted not by our phones but by familiarity.
One of the places this happens the most is those Bible stories we tend to tell around Christmas time. Like the story in Matthew 2. It’s a very familiar Bible story, a story about wise men following a star and giving gifts to a baby king. It’s been immortalized on film, on stage, in Christmas Carols, and in countless Nativity scenes all over the world.
But there is much for us to learn from this story if we’ll follow the example of the phone-free lady and really look at this passage. Not looking at the passage through the lens of what we think we know but looking at what the Spirit actually says.
Let’s begin by busting some of the myths many of us have believed about the wise men. Keep in mind, the wise men are only mentioned in Matthew 2 so what we read this morning is all we know.
While many people assume the wise men rode camels, the text doesn’t say. Ask most people and they’ll tell you there were three wise men. Once again, the text doesn’t say anything about their number. We just know there was more than one. And the popular Christmas carol is wrong. There is no indication that these men were kings. Contrary to some traditions, we definitely don’t know their names. Perhaps most startling for some is the reality that these wise men were not at the manger. Matthew 2:11 says they found Mary and baby Jesus in “the house.”
So what do we know about the wise men? We know they were gentiles. Matthew 2:1 says they were “from the east.” This is significant because most Jewish people were expecting a Messiah who would come for Jews only. After all, it was the Gentile Romans who began occupying Palestine about 60 years prior to this story. The Gentiles were often perceived as the enemy the Messiah would rescue God’s people from, not people the Messiah would come for.
We know the wise men were “magi.” Many English translations say, “wise men,” a phrase that most of us would likely receive as a compliment. I’m convinced that’s not what Matthew intended. The word in the original language is magi, a word that originally referred to pagan priests from Persia and Babylon. They were occult teachers, astrologers, fortune-tellers, interpreters of dreams, sorcerers, and wizards. The term was used multiple times in the Septuagint in Daniel to refer to magicians and sorcerers. The only other time the word is used in the New Testament, it’s always referring to sorcery and sorcerers.
Isn’t it interesting that the very first people worshipping Jesus in Matthew’s gospel are a group of Gentile sorcerers? If the Father will purse people like that, He’ll pursue people like you and me. If Jesus will receive worship from people like that, He’ll receive worship people like you and me.
Jesus Himself said it best: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17b).