In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Guide Us With Your Perfect Light: Matthew 2:1-12
A few years ago, my sister shared this story with me. In early December, in her small church in Texas, they had been preparing for the arrival of the Christ child. One of the things they did was put together a crèche, a manger scene, in the sanctuary. Space is at a premium in their sanctuary, much as it is in ours. My sister noticed that the small stable they had looked particularly crowded. She realized that some of the crowding issues were because someone decided to go ahead put all of the manger scene people inside the barn at the beginning of the season. Usually, they add the people and animals as the month progresses. My sister wasn't sure why someone decided to go ahead and build the whole thing. She said somebody probably just got busy and tried to save time by putting the whole scene up at one time, and nobody else thought it was worth the effort to take out some of the figures only to add them back at a later date.
Now, one Sunday, as their pastor preached up in their now very crowded chancel, he turned around quickly and bumped right into the tiny, crowded barn. Down went the magi. Well, at least one magi... Kellie didn't tell me if it was Gaspar, Balthazar, or Melchior. She did tell me that his head popped clean off, right in the middle of their worship service. Her pastor leaned over, picked up the poor fellow and his now detached head, and said, "I’m sorry. It looks like I broke his head off." Then, without missing a beat, his wife said, "Well, that's ok. He wasn't supposed to be in there yet any way."
I laughed out loud when Kellie told me this story. I totally get it. Like the woman at her church, I don't think the Magi needed to have been there yet, either. Jesus doesn't get in the manger until Christmas and the Magi don't show up until Epiphany. That's how this works. It gives us some narrative continuity. And, it gives me something fun to do with the kids during a children's moment in January. It is actually worth taking some time to get to the Magi. I mean, they would have had to take some time to find Jesus. They did not have access to rapid transit. Donkeys and camels can only go so fast. In fact, they probably would not have visited a baby Jesus, but a toddler Jesus and his family. And, if we're really paying attention, they wouldn't have shown up looking for the baby in a barn. Matthew doesn't talk about a stable at all. That's the birth story from Luke. Luke wanted to make sure that we know God shows up in unexpected places, like in a barn surrounded by poor people and animals. Matthew had a slightly different point to make about Jesus. That's where the Magi come in.
The author of Matthew still thinks that God moves in unexpected ways, but shows this movement differently. In Luke, Jesus is shown as a different kind of Messiah than the military leader that the people expected. His manger-side birth showed that he was different from the very beginning. Luke tells us something about God's values by situating Emmanuel among the common, every day, poor people of Israel. But, the story of the Magi is from Matthew. Matthew switches it around a little. Matthew keeps Jesus among regular people, but brings the symbols of power into the poor places. The story is meant to surprise us, as I'm sure it surprised Herod. It makes sense that we, and the Magi, would ask: Who is this child? And why doesn't Herod know him?
Scholars tell us that the Magi, the Wise Ones from the East, weren't kings like the one song says. They were, however, experts in astronomy and mathematics, and well-versed in the astrological traditions that would have been understood as cutting-edge science. As natives of Persia or Armenia and members of the royal court in their homeland, it would have been important to them to follow certain protocols in order to maintain good relationships with neighboring countries. They would likely have been accustomed to visiting the local rulers to offer congratulations on the birth of royal children. In this story, the star, like the dreams people have, is a divine sign telling them that something important is happening. The star is a sign that they have a part to play in this holy story. They don't know what yet. In fact, they just seem to assume that this baby is like any regular royal baby. They assume that their gifts and glad tidings would be welcome. Little did they know that the revelations that came with their arrival would be far from comforting to those who were already in places of power.
Herod, and all of Jerusalem, became terrified when they heard of a new child who would be born to be king of the Jews. Herod, though technically a king, was hardly a stable or confident ruler. He only had power because Rome allowed him to have power. Part of how Israel understood its own history and its relationship with God was that they believed God gave them a king. These kings were often seen as rulers who led the people out of oppression. Herod was not appointed by God. Herod was appointed by Rome. He was a walking symbol of the people's oppression. He was not on their side. He only cared about ability to maintain power. The moment Rome became dissatisfied with his administration of their territory, he would be deposed. Historians tell us that he would do anything, including murder his own sons and other innocent children, to stay in control. The divine birth of a new king, which is what the Magi thought had happened, would have felt like a threatened this callous and cowardly ruler.
Scripture tells us that out of his fear, he crafted a lie. He and his political cronies hatched a plan to destroy the one who would upset their delicate, destructive, self-serving order. He told the Wise Ones that he hoped they would find the child. He asked them to tell him when they did. He said that he, too, wanted to pay homage. But, there was no worship or hospitality on his mind. Only grasping fear. Only concern that he would lose power. Only a desperate strategy to hang on to what Rome had given him. Thank God the Magi realized that Herod only had self-preservation on his mind. Thank God that they had enough sense to listen to their dream and not seek out his council once again.
The Magi know something about God that Herod doesn't. They see signs and dream dreams. Herod doesn't. If we want to know something about God, we should follow them. And, where do they go? They go right out to a regular little town full of regular people. That's where they know the Divine is leading them. They find Mary and her toddler, Jesus, regular people, part of the subjugated class. Mary and her whole family were likely barely literate and fairly impoverished. Their home was the last place that most royal emissaries would have expected to find a new national leader. And, yet, the magi trusted the Divine. So, they were able to find Jesus.
Matthew shows us that Jesus is different and special because the learned and wise leaders seek him out for veneration. As his story unfolds, we can be confident that he will prove to be a leader worth following because these wise people were willing to go to such lengths to find him. Matthew believed that God would show you the way, even if it means you had to find your way around a coward and fool like Herod. God can show you a sign and help you make a way. It started with the Magi. And this courageous hopefulness can continue with us. Herod's desperation and destructiveness have nothing to do with God. The Magis hospitality and faithfulness do. Where is God calling you? What tools do you need to make your way around the craven and the callous and into the Divine? How can you use your great gifts to make God's presence known? The Magi found a way. I pray that we can, too.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Terriel R. Byrd, "Epiphany," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Jan Schnell Rippentrop: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3523
Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2736
Stephen Hultgren: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2304
Craig A. Satterlee: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1525
David Lose: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1509
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.