THE TRUE LIGHT THAT ENLIGHTENS
by Douglas Clark,
Toward the end of the Christmas pageant performed downstairs on December 14, there was
a surprise--and silent--visit from three bearded men dressed in regal robes. It was the
wise men, come to pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews. The magi of Riverside
certainly needed no introduction, for their visit is a familiar part of the Christmas
story. I understand that this particular characterization of the magi was one of Kevin
Hoggards additions to the script, and I thought it worked beautifully.
This morning I want to direct our attention to Matthews narrative of the visit of
the three kings to Bethlehem. And I want us to consider Matthew independently of Luke, so
that we have a clearer understanding of those themes that are unique to Matthew
story of Jesus. The Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown, in his thorough and wonderful
book The Birth of the Messiah, notes that Matthews story of the birth of Jesus is a
drama in two acts.
In the first act, The magi from the East, representing the Gentiles, receive Gods
revelation about the birth of the Messiah through a proclamation in nature, a star. They
come to Jerusalem and are further enlightened about the place of the Messiahs birth
through the Jewish Scriptures. They go to Bethlehem to pay him homage with gifts, and
return [to the East] another way.
In the second act, the evil Herod, who has been lurking in the background in the first
act, moves into the foreground. Despite a knowledge of the Scripture in which he has
been instructed by Jewish officialdom, Herod seeks to kill the newborn king. But through
Gods [guidance], the Messiah is taken away to Egypt, [thus escaping the massacre of
the innocents,] and later brought back alive, to Nazareth. (Raymond Brown, The Birth
of the Messiah, pp. 178, 179.) In the first act, God directs the magi to the Messiah
through both nature and scripture. In the second act, God directs Joseph to protect his
infant son through a series of dreams. And in the transition between the first act and the
second act, God directs the magi through a dream to avoid Herod on their way home.
The wise men--scientists and scholars from the Gentile world--respond to the news of
the Jewish Messiahs birth by undertaking a long journey to the place of his birth
and there showing him their respect and their devotion. But the secular ruler Herod
responds to this same news by seeking to destroy the child--a quest that cannot succeed
because it is contrary to the will of God. And Jesus father Joseph takes his family
on a long journey that is a kind of reliving of both Exodus and Exile, those foundational
narratives of Israels history as Gods chosen people.
Matthews narrative of Jesus birth and infancy thus hearkens back to the
whole scriptural narrative of the history of Israel, and tries to show how Jesus is the
fulfillment of this Jewish story. But the infancy narrative also foreshadows the crucial
events of Jesus adult life, especially his death and resurrection.
In the figure of Herod the Great, we can hear echoes of Pharaoh and see shadows of
Pontius Pilate. In the figure of Joseph--husband and father--we meet a righteous Jew who
is faithful to the teachings and traditions of his people, and who is the guardian of the
Messiah. And in the figures of the magi and their devotion, we can see hints of the
Gentile church of the future, including the church of the late twentieth century. In the
first century, it didnt take long for the community of Jesus to leave behind many of
its Jewish roots as it became a mixed Jewish and Gentile church, and then an almost
exclusively Gentile church.
By the time the gospel of Matthew was written, in the final quarter of the first
century, Matthews community was a mixed community consisting of both Jews and
Gentiles, but with dominance now shifting over to the Gentile side. In writing
his gospel for this community, Matthew is concerned to show that Jesus has always
had meaning for both Jew and Gentile. (Brown, p. 47.)