The snow is falling, the light is fading, and I’m stopped short by this lamppost. Fighting back the urge to look for a faun, I stand and contemplate its beauty. With every branch around it edged with snow, it looks like an elegant, ornate etching. One in which the artist added just a touch of color to the flame.
And since I have begun a study of the book of Matthew, this light reminds me of a prophecy linked to in the story of the magi’s visit.
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Isaiah 60:3
This is why tradition (not Matthew) named them “kings.” They were more likely to be Babylonian astrologers, well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. But they came bearing expensive gifts, ones also connected to the Old Testament. Fascinatingly, those presents link to a famous story in the life of another king – Solomon, a literal son of David:
May the kings of Sheba and Seba
present him gifts. Ps. 72:10
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord. Is. 60:6
Note the geographic location referenced. Remind you of anyone?
The queen of Sheba. We hear about her in 1 Kings 10, where we’re told that she:
(arrived) at Jerusalem with a very great caravan—with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones. (10:2)
I love this rendition of her visit by Edward Poynter in 1890 (except that she was probably dark-skinned). It captures the extravagance of what awaited her in Solomon’s palace. This was what she had come to see! This was royalty at its finest!
In fact, Scripture tells us that when she saw all that he had built, listened to his wisdom, and witnessed his burnt offerings, she was “overwhelmed.” (10: 5)
Fast forward to the magi. When they set out to meet this newborn “King of the Jews,” they must have had something of this regal opulence in mind. (Well, perhaps minus the peacocks.)
Surely, this explains why they approached Herod first. Where else would a new king be, but in a palace?
So, how amazed must they have been when the star supernaturally led them to the humble house where the infant Jesus lived. No royal robes. No courtiers. No seven swans a swimming. (Or peacocks pruning.)
Just a poor family in a common house with small-town, everyday life going on around them.
How did they react? In Job, there is a passing reference to Sheba. And though it isn’t related to visiting a king (the travelers assumed they’d find water in a desert), it feels quite pertinent:
The caravans of Tema look for water,
the traveling merchants of Sheba look in hope.
They are distressed, because they had been confident;
they arrive there, only to be disappointed. Job 6:19-20
No one would have faulted the magi for being underwhelmed. They certainly must have been surprised. Astonished or not, on finding the child, they “paid him homage.” (Mt. 2) Then they gave him the gold and spices they had brought – in faith that he was the king foretold.
How often does God surprise you? I ask myself the same question. Today, he surprises me with the beauty of the snow. But all too often, I expect God to live in my assumptions about him and how he works. As if I know best how a real king would reveal himself.
The magi remind me that God delights in showing up in the most surprising places.
And in the most unexpected ways.
Lord, someday we’ll be overwhelmed by the richness of the glory of your reign. But this week, help us to see the greatness of your love displayed in your humble birth.
Reader: Merry Christmas! If you have a few minutes, I’d love to hear from you – share some holiday tradition