The Displaced Character in the Christmas Story
by Kevin C. Peacock
I wonder what the magi were thinking on their way to Jerusalem. Their journey had probably begun many months earlier. In their study of the stars, they noticed the rising of a strange star, indicating that a king had been born. Magi (from which comes the English word “magic”) were astrologers by trade – learned men who studied the stars for a living – “wise men” because they interpreted the stars or dreams. Sometimes the word referred a magician or sorcerer – someone who practiced the “magical arts.” Anyway, they were very well-educated, very well-respected, and something got their attention – they had to check it out.
God knows how to get someone’s attention – the Bible is filled with stories of God using familiar things and events to get people to listen up and take notice. For Abraham and Sarah, it was a 90-year-old barren woman who got pregnant (Genesis 18, 21). For Moses in his shepherd years, it was a burning bush that refused to burn up (Exodus 3). For Pharaoh, it was 10 plagues that attacked essentially everything he believed (Exodus 7-11). For the Philistines who had taken the Ark of the Covenant, it was the statue of their god Dagon lying facedown with its head and arms broken off before the Ark of Israel’s God – followed by a terrible plague of boils (1 Samuel 5). For the sailors with Jonah, it was a terrible storm on the sea that miraculously stopped when they threw Jonah into the water (Jon 1:15-16). For Amos, the shepherd and farmer, it was the roar of a lion (Amos 3:8).
God knows how to get someone’s attention – and for these magi, He did it through the stars. The long-awaited king was born – not someone who was born a prince to one day become a king, but someone who was rightfully King from the moment of His birth. The stars told the magi this, and they had to go check it out. They loaded up their caravan for the long journey to Israel, and they gathered up their precious gifts, fit for a King.
We don’t know exactly where they came from – the Scripture simply says “from the east.” Some think Persia, Babylon, or Arabia (it could have been from China or Korea!). But it was a long journey, and I am sure that in those weeks or months on the road they were talking with each other along the way.
I wonder what they were expecting. What would they see? What would they experience? How wonderful would it be? Would they be received into the presence of this great King?
We don’t know exactly what they were expecting, but we may get a hint from what the prophet Isaiah, centuries before, said would happen. In Isaiah 60 the prophet gives a word of hope to Zion that, even though she had suffered destruction and exile, the Lord would bless the city with His presence once more, bringing them salvation. He said:
- God’s light would come back to Zion (vv. 1-2).
- The nations would come to Zion to worship (vv. 3-4).
- The nations would bring their wealth to Zion as an offering to the Lord (vv. 5-14).
- Israelites, scattered by the exile, would come back (v. 9).
- The joy would come back (vv. 15-22).
The first people to be privileged to see “the glory of the Lord” were a group of shepherds outside the town of Bethlehem.
- “And the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened” (Luke 2:9).
The glory was back!
- “Your light has come, And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Isa 60:1).
But there were others attracted to this light – people from other nations who would come to worship – “magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?’” (Matt 2:1-2).
Nations will come to your light,
And kings to the brightness of your rising.
Lift up your eyes round about and see;
They all gather together, they come to you (Isa 60:3-4).
To me, here is the interesting twist in the story – the magi went to Jerusalem (i.e. Zion) where they were supposed to go – in fact, that is where the prophet said they would go. There in Zion they would bow before the Davidic king, the “king of the Jews.” There they would experience the overwhelming sense of God’s presence. There they would offer their worship. There they would find “the hopes and fears of all the years” met, as prophesied so long ago. They had been drawn by God’s invitation to worship. They got to Zion, and the king wasn’t there – in fact, the wrong king was on the throne.
God must have something else in mind.
An Unexpected Destination
The religious leaders in Jerusalem pointed the magi to the Scriptures – the promised King would be born in Bethlehem (Matt 2:4-6) – and God confirmed it with the “star” (Matt 2:9). It wasn’t what they were expecting – a small house in a little town – no palace, no temple, no servants or priests – just a simple house with a young couple and their baby boy.
My father’s side of the family came from northern Louisiana, and for all practical purposes that was as far back as my family tree went. One of my earliest memories (I was three years old) was visiting the old family farm in Forest, Louisiana. My grandmother’s brother, Uncle Wilmer, was a bachelor farmer who took care of the family farm, and every few years as I was growing up we would make a trip up to northern Louisiana to visit him and the farm. My brother and I loved Uncle Wilmer and the farm. He had served in World War II and had artifacts from his time at war in the Pacific. He was a man of the outdoors – a rough and rugged man, growing cotton and soybeans – and he had a collection of native artifacts (e.g. arrowheads) that he had gathered from the fields as he plowed them.
The old farm had a bunch of neat stuff made for little boys to play with: an old barn just perfect for us to play in, old tractors that hadn’t been driven in years, just sitting there rusting in the sun and rain. Uncle Wilmer had an old school bus with the sides taken off of it – now a sort of flatbed truck that he would use to haul produce. The house had an old cistern used to collect rainwater that became the drinking and wash water for the house – it always had holes in it, and we would whittle wooden plugs to keep the water from leaking out. The yard had an old chinaberry tree whose fruits were not edible, but they made perfect “bullets” for a straw blowgun. It was a great place for a little boy growing up!
Years later, when our kids were small, we were in northern Louisiana, where I was speaking at a church that was only about 40 km (25 miles) from Forest. So, Sunday afternoon after lunch, Brenda and I left the kids with some friends, and the two of us drove up to see the old farm. The entire way I was describing to Brenda all of my old memories of the place, and re-living those experiences.
It had been over 20 years since I had last been there, so as we drove into the little town of Forest I called my father on the cell phone and asked him to describe to me how to find the farm. Forest only had one traffic light, so we were told to “take a left onto the little highway, and about four kilometers outside of town, the highway will bend left, and right at that bend, the farm will be on the left.” As we drove, just as he said, there it was! A little farmhouse, sitting all by itself on the edge of a field – but there was no barn, no chinaberry tree, no tractors, no old school bus, and nothing else other than an old run-down shack of a farmhouse. I saw the little farmhouse off in the distance and immediately recognized it. “That’s it!!”
Brenda looked me in the face and exclaimed, “That’s it?!? We drove all the way up here to see that?!?”
I had to admit that the final destination of our journey was not exactly what I expected.
I wonder if the magi felt the same way.