Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:
'And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;
For out of you shall come forth a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.'"
Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him."
After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And after coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.
(Matthew 2: 1-12)
Usually, when looking at the story of the magi seeking the baby Jesus, I'm thinking just about their intention to seek the Christ and bring Him gifts. They travel a rather long distance to perform this act of worship, and the gifts they bring are precious and significant. But this time, having recently considered the public clash of belief with unbelief over things like the public display of Nativity scenes, my attention was caught by another element in the story - the clash with King Herod's worldly concerns.
The magi made the trip from their distant home very much as an act of faith. Whatever the significance of the Star was to them, they couldn't be sure of what they would find. Their lack of certainty shows in their choice to go straight to the currently ruling "King of the Jews", Herod. Their own intention was to worship the baby they knew had been born, that they (somehow) knew would be a King, so perhaps it is not surprising that they sought this child with the worldly king.
How easily do we mistake spiritual matters for worldly ones? Fairly easy. Even the Wise can do it.
The magi knew they had traveled to offer worship, worsihp to one born to such a dramatic destiny that the very heavens proclaimed the news for those who could read the signs. The cosmos told them about the baby. And yet, it didn't occur to them that this special birth might be something other than of mere worldly import. So, knowing the child was destined to be king, they sought the current king, apparently assuming the child was of Herod's family.
Herod's own worldliness shows up in his reaction to this visitation. His family were actually Edomites, not Jewish, but in ruling over the Jews he'd obvioiusly become familiar with the fact that in Jewish history rulership didn't always proceed from tather to son, but also that the culture was riddled with prophecies and expectations. He turned to the learned scholars of his court and asked about the Messiah. He knew of the prophecies of an expected ruler who would overturn the worldly authorities. He was paranoid enough about his position to want to keep track of any possible threat to his kingship, and that included that prophesied savior. He too was thinking about worldly matters.
Herod was politic enough not to conceal the information from the magi. When his scholars told him that Bethlehem of Judea was supposedly the place for the Messiah to come from, he sent the magi on their way. He requested with seeming disinterest that once they'd found the Child, they come back and tell him about it all, so he could follow their example. Oh, yeah, all he wanted to do was offer worship to a Child that might one day replace him.
That factor may not have occured to the magi, because they were foreigners. The political, civil state of Judea wasn't of importance to them. They just wanted to worship the child the heavens declared king.
What a situation ripe for disaster!
But God watches out for the things that are important to Him.
God had the Star continue to serve as a guide to the magi, leading them to the Child, still to be found in the small, humble town of Bethlehem. Mary, Joseph and the Child had moved into the house, probably because the crush of out-of-towners had ended, with most of the visitors having gotten their census business done and gone back to their regular lives. But a young mother with a newborn child, they're not going to be shoving off for a cross-country journey right away. So now there was room for them in the inn. The magi arrived, presented their gifts, and performed the worship that they had traveled all this distance to make.
But then God intervened. Instead of allowing the worldly matter to take hold, instead of affirming worldly rulership, God warned the magi to avoid going back to Herod.
God knows perfectly well how civil matters affect our lives. But the birth of the Christ Child is at once more intimate and more vast than the issue of civil, worldly government. Christ became flesh to get God "under our skin", to change our thinking about God from being "out there" to something more intimate. That closeness and immediacy is more important to the Lord than the mere civil picture.
We live in the world. The sounds and sights and touches of the material and civil world press around us, drawing our attention and focus. We look to the worldly authorities for the shaping of our lives, because they do have such power.
But the magi were not seeking a worldly authority. They might not have known that when they set out. even though the sign they followed was distinctly unworldly. But by the time they found the Child, God made it clear to them that the matter of this Child was not something that was within Herod's purview.
Many Christians in the world have for long enjoyed a degree of security within their cultures, being allowed to gather and worship without disturbance from the civil rulers. Of course, just as many do not have that security. In America, I think we've taken it for granted. We have an expectation that the civil authorities will actually protect us as we go about our worship. Some even consider this protection to be ordained by God and therefore inviolate. But that was not the situation Jesus was born into. If the infant Christ was not born into a world where the civil authorities bowed to spiritual worship, why do we expect our situation to be different?
That can be a scary proposition, knowing that our worship might not be secure from disruption by the civil authorities. But look again to the story. God watches out for the things that are important to Him. The magi reached their desitantion. They performed the act of worship they had come so far to give. They saw the face of God Incarnate in the Infant. And then the Lord warned them not to return to Herod. This Child was none of Herod's business.
The Lord puts spiritual matters first, He protects those matters. Danger and persecution may prowl around, but God guides the believers and seekers to Himself, meets them, and then sends them onward by safe (if obscure) paths.
Are we looking to the civil rulership for matters that are spiritual, that belong to the Lord? Are we bestowing spiritual kingship upon worldly leaders instead of seeking the One born King? It's an easy thing to do, even when extraordinary signs hint that the matter is far bigger than a worldly ruler.
Do you see that Star? Do you know where it is leading? And who did you ask for directions? Are they trust-worthy? The Lord awaits your coming.