Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Matthew 2:1-12 The Visit of the Wise Men
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.
Even though it’s a little early, today, we’re going to celebrate Epiphany, which for those of us who are Protestant and Catholic, is the day to commemorate the arrival of the Magi to meet young Jesus. There is only one Gospel that tells us this story. It’s the Gospel of Matthew. The person who wrote Matthew wants to make sure that we know at least two things about the Messiah: One is that Jesus is a fulfillment of the promises God made to God’s people and two, that Jesus is coming to not just his own ethnic and religious group: Jesus is coming to the whole world. And, people outside of their community will see God in Jesus just as clearly, and sometimes more clearly, than the people in his community. We have an entire special day set aside on the church calendar dedicated to one of the stories of outsiders knowing just exactly who Jesus was, even though he was a child. And, the powerful people in Jesus’ community, well, one powerful person, in Jesus’ community is not excited, in the least, to hear that a Messiah has come.
Christian traditions around the backstory and identities of the Magi abound. We’ve given them names. We decided there were three of them. We’ve also decided that they each might also come from a different ethnic background. And, we turned them into kings. But, as you heard from our reader today, none of that is actually in the story from Matthew. Matthew simple calls them wise ones, or in Greek, Magi. They were scholars, and priests from the Zoroastrian faith. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest continuing faiths in the world and was once the official faith of Persia, the region we now call Iran. In her commentary on the text, Rev. Niveen Sarras tells us that the priests were consulted to interpret dreams and write horoscopes, based on their immense understanding of the stars, for powerful people, including the Persian emperor. They would be called wise because their training helped them give good advice to powerful people.
According to Rev. Sarras, the prophet for whom Zoroastrianism is named, Zoroaster, was said to have been born from a virgin. Part of his teachings included predictions that other women would become pregnant as his mother had, bringing more divine prophets into the world. The priests believed that they could tell when one of these prophets was going to be born by reading the patterns in the stars. The Persian priests, like their Jewish neighbors, were waiting for someone holy to be born. The star that they would have seen would have been a great and wonderous sign for their people.
At the same time as they and everyday Jewish people were hoping for a Savior, there was a king in Israel who was anything but. Herod was known to be a paranoid, brutal, and cruel king. In her commentary on the text, Elizabeth Johnson notes that he killed one of his wives and several of his sons because he thought they were plotting against them. His power was tenuous... he only got to call himself king because the Emperor of Rome let him do so. Remember, his people believed that God would bring up a leader from their people. Herod was not a leader from their people. And, he knew it. He grew afraid and, in his fear, did great harm. Fearful, powerful people are dangerous.
The Magi show up in Herod’s palace mostly out of politeness. Magi often greeted new kings in neighboring countries. They weren’t trying to cause trouble. They were just making sure to celebrate the prophet, whom they might have expected to become king, that they’d been looking for. Maybe they even may have thought the baby was Herod’s. In the story, it seems like they just followed the star and found themselves right in the middle of a tyrant’s dangerous intrigues.
Herod tried to wrap the magi up in his schemes. He thought he could manipulate them into helping him harm a potential threat to his power. He told them about the Jewish prophecies that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. He sent them ahead, asking them to let him know when they found the baby, so he could pay homage as well. Thank God these Magi saw through his machinations and chose to protect the child instead of coddle the powerful.
They find the baby, following the divine star. And, they receive a dream that warns them of returning to Herod, so they go home a different road. They could have decided to return to Herod out of courtesy or respect for his position. But, instead, they trusted their dream and their God and they left without seeing him. They saved the one special child born under the star. They could not save the other children in Bethlehem. Herod’s fear made him dangerous and he harmed children in order to shore up his political power. He wasn’t the last tyrant to go to such measures either.
Before they leave, the Magi give the child Jesus gifts. The gifts are important. Typically give to royalty and religious leaders, they are details that show us that 1) Jesus will be a leader to his people and 2) that people outside of his community will know it. According to Rev. Sarras, gold is a symbol of royalty; frankincense a symbol of wisdom; and myrrh a symbol of long life and healing. For Jesus, who we will learn had a ministry that was rooted in healing, guided by wisdom, and who represented a new kind of God-ordained leadership in the world, these three gifts are tantalizing clues of what is to come in this story.
Throughout the rest of his life, everyday Jewish and Gentile people will meet Jesus, be changed by their time with him, and come to know that he was the Messiah. They will also realize that he is the Messiah in a different way than they expected. He won’t be a military leader or king. He will be a homeless teacher who heals the wounded and cares for the downtrodden. He will remind his people of their core commitments to love God and neighbor. He will never sacrifice someone else, as Herod had, to maintain power. He will eat with his enemies and be kind to people from other religious communities. And, he will call out powerful people who continue practices that harm the powerless.
The Magi show us something important about following Jesus. They show us that sometimes you follow God by taking a different road home. They show us that cruel people do not deserve our cooperation in harm. We are called not to conspire with the powerful but to humble ourselves in the face of Emmanuel, the Messiah we hoped for who enters into the world in the form of a vulnerable child from a simple family. The star shines on, showing us the way to the Messiah. May we follow it with a sense of faith, justice, and care inspired by the Wise Ones who went ahead of us. And, may we never help the wicked do more harm.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Niveen Sarras: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3931
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5271
Elizabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/epiphany-of-our-lord/commentary-on-matthew-21-12-11
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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.