“So he assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people and asked them where the Messiah would be born. ‘In Bethlehem of Judea,’ they told him, ‘because this is what was written by the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah: Because out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
On the rare occasions when I have to take my youngest to the doctor, if we have to wait very long in the exam room, one of his favorite things to do are the hidden object books they have. The idea is pretty simple. There is a picture on each page with all manner of random objects and you have to try and find certain ones. There are whole apps dedicated to these kinds of seek-and-find games. What makes them fun (at least for a little while) is that there’s no particular catch to them. Everything you are looking for is sitting right there in plain sight. You simply have to see it right. Once you’ve found it you almost can’t not see it because it has become so obvious to you. Before that, though, it might as well not even exist on the page. Sometimes things can be right in front of us, but we don’t see them at all. With a hidden object book, that’s not such a big deal. There are some things, though, in which our inability to see becomes entirely more problematic.
This particular story out of Matthew’s Gospel is where he tells us about the magi from the east who came to visit Jesus after He was born. For a group of admirers who have occupied an enormous place in the history of the church, we know remarkably little about them. Historical scholars have done much research into the culture of first century Persia to fill in our knowledge gap a little bit, but we’re mostly just guessing. All we really know is that some rich guys came from the east looking for a newborn king of the Jews on the basis of the appearance of some new light in the night sky. Looking for a king, they naturally went first to the capital city of the Jews without having any real awareness of the political headache they would cause everyone by doing that.
They eventually found the baby Jesus on a tip from Herod, paid their visit, and unwittingly upended the life of Jesus and His family by inadvertently forcing them to flee the country to save their infant son’s life from Herod’s murderous plans for them. The whole story is filled with intrigue and tragedy. It is a jarring reminder that just because God came to begin the process of putting an end to sin doesn’t mean sin was wiped completely out of the picture on day one.
This morning, though, there is something else about this story that has captured my attention. It is a detail I’ve noticed before, and it was a cause for me to pause and reflect then too. Here’s what got me: When the magi came and asked Herod where the newborn king of the Jews had been born, Herod didn’t know what they were talking about. He was immediately paranoid and suspicious of this obvious plot against his rule and his future plans for his children to rule once he died, but he didn’t know what to tell them. So, he assembled all of the best religious minds in the city and asked them the magi’s question.
Remarkably, they came up with an answer for him. They went through the Scriptures, found Micah 5:2, and told him that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. And they were right about that. Exactly right. God had fulfilled that Scripture just as plainly as He could have fulfilled it. So then, here’s my question: Why were they not doing anything about this? If they knew so specifically where the Messiah was to be born, and if they were presumably actively looking for His arrival into the world, why were they not on a constant watch over Bethlehem to be able to identify Him as soon as He showed up there? Why, when other Messiah pretenders showed up on the scene, did they not debunk them as false by the simple matter of finding out where they were born? How had this crucial fact seemed to escape their committing any kind of firm actions in light of it for so long?
I can only reach a few different conclusions in answer to these questions, but they all boil down to one big idea: They didn’t really believe it. They knew about this verse, and knew it would give Herod something to go on to get him off of their backs, but they didn’t really believe it. They didn’t think the Messiah would actually be born in Bethlehem. I guess they figured He would come from somewhere else; somewhere more befitting His position and prestige. The end result, though, was that the Messiah was born right where they said He would be born, and they missed it. In fact, in their almost willful ignorance they played a hand in His being killed before He could do any of His Messiah stuff.
Sometimes God’s work is hiding right in plain sight where we can see it. The problem is, we don’t see it. The reasons we don’t see it may vary. It may be that we have a particular blind spot to it. We may be looking in the wrong places. We may just not believe it is really going to happen the way it is happening. Perhaps we don’t want to see it. Whatever the exact reason, though, our not seeing it puts us in danger of missing out on it.
The real question for us here, then, is this: How do we avoid this? We start by taking God’s word at face value. This doesn’t mean we take it literally. Those are not the same thing. Taking God’s word at face value may mean doing some careful interpretive work with the help of trusted scholars and a community committed to the same theological ends we are seeking. The big idea right here, though, is that we trust that when God says something, He means it. In addition to this, we work to develop a relationship with Him that allows us to start seeing the world the way He does. As we do that – again by engaging regularly with the Scriptures, but also through prayer and a pursuit of the other spiritual disciplines – we will be far less likely to miss out on His work when it is right in front of us.
The chief priests and scribes – who by every measure should have known better – missed out on God’s work because they didn’t believe it would happen the way He said it would happen. They missed out on the arrival of God’s Son into the world. We may not be able to miss out on that like they did, but there is another Advent ahead of us. Guys like Paul and John were as clear as can be that no one will miss out on that one. Let’s just be sure we are living our lives so that we’re not on the wrong side when the day comes.