Will we answer with fear, or will we break out in blessing, rejoicing that the future looks bright?
By Deacon Bob Hunt
The infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are some of the most endearing and beloved biblical stories. Among those stories is included that of the Magi coming from the east to find the one who is king of the Jews.
Father Raymond Brown, the late, great scholar of the Scriptures, offers some keen commentary on the story, first by pointing out some fascinating parallels between the story of the Magi and Herod, and the story of Balaam and Balak in the Book of Numbers. As the Hebrews, led by Moses, were traveling through the desert on the west bank of the Jordan River toward the promised land, they encamped in the land of Moab. Balak was the king of Moab, and he was concerned.
He was aware of Israel’s recent defeat of the Amorites, so he feared their military prowess. As well, he was anxious that, there being so many of them, the Hebrews would devour all the resources of his kingdom. So Balak sent for Balaam, a magus from the east and practitioner of magic. Balaam came with his two servants (so, there were three of them), and Balak asked that he curse the Hebrews. Instead of cursing them, however, Balaam foretold a bright future for Israel:
“How pleasant are your tents, Jacob; your encampments, Israel! … their king will rise higher than Agag and their dominion will be exalted. … I see him, though not now; I observe him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel, … Israel will act boldly, and Jacob will rule his foes” (Numbers 27:5-7, 17-19a). Here, then, we have the story of a king who plans the destruction of God’s people employing a magus from the east as his conspirator in that plan. Yet the magus blesses God’s people instead of cursing them.
In the story of Herod and the Magi, there is a similar motif. Magi from the east (the Scriptures don’t say how many; the tradition of three Magi or kings is based on the three gifts they present to Jesus) are enchanted by a star to find the newborn king of the Jews. They arrive in Herod’s land and are called to his side. Fearing the overthrow of his reign by a new king, Herod hatches a plot to destroy the child. He hopes to use the Magi to find the child and kill Him. The Magi, however, thwart Herod’s plan, leaving his country without reporting to the evil king the whereabouts of Jesus.
In both stories there is a king and a magus or Magi from the east. The king desires the destruction of God’s chosen. He attempts to employ the Magi in his plot but is frustrated by their taking the side of God’s chosen. In both stories there is the realization that God’s chosen is among us. How will they respond to that realization? Will it inspire fear or joy? Will they desire to curse or bless God’s chosen?
That same choice lies before us. The Christmas story is not simply a child’s fantasy, the magical tale of a couple seeking shelter, a woman giving birth to a baby, with only a donkey’s manger available for a crib. Animals and shepherds, kings and angels rejoice at the birth of the child. It all sounds wonderful and, of course, it is. But it is also terrifying. For in the birth of that child, in our response to the arrival of God’s chosen, we have a choice to make. That choice will determine not only if Dec. 25 is for us a happy celebration of faith and family or simply another day on the calendar. It is a choice between life and death.
This is not a child’s Christmas dream. It is a deadly serious proposition with eternal significance. How will we respond to the presence of God’s chosen among us? Will we, like Balak and Herod, respond with fear that we stand to lose everything? Or will we, like Balaam and the Magi, recognize God’s chosen and break out in blessing, rejoicing that the future looks bright?
Jesus brings life. To those who follow Him, He promises new life, eternal life. The child who looks so weak, so helpless, so small in the arms of His loving Mother is, in fact, the one who represents the difference between light and darkness, good and evil, life and death. Choose life!
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.
Deacon Bob Hunt is a husband, father, grandfather, and parishioner at All Saints Church in Knoxville.