Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12
We’ve taken down the Christmas trees and put away the decorations – though if you have outdoor lights, they will likely be up for a while (unless spending time on a ladder in -15 temperatures is your idea of a good time). We are into the New Year, with the last of what used to be the New Year’s Day bowl games to be played tonight. The holidays are over and we are moving on; they are already well into the Valentine season at Target.
But as Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend.” In the Church Year, tomorrow, January 6, is Epiphany. We all know the song “The 12 Days of Christmas” – well, Epiphany is the 12th day. In many cultures, including much of Latin America, it is called Three Kings Day and is the day when gifts are exchanged.
Epiphany marks the visit of the Wise Men to baby Jesus. Literally, the word means “showing,” or “revealing.” The star led the Wise Men to the Christ child, and the visit of the Wise Men was the first revealing of Christ to the Gentiles.
Just who were these Wise Men? We really don’t know. The Greek word that is used here is magoi, which we transliterate as “Magi.” This is the root of the word magic. In the only other occurrence in the New Testament, in Acts chapter 13, it is translated as “magician” or “sorcerer.” Whoever the Magi were, they were able to get an audience with Herod. They were people of some means, and the kind of people who were open to being led by revelations and dreams and stars. Because our reading from Isaiah speaks of kings bringing gold and frankincense, the Magi have often been spoken of as kings – as in our carol We Three Kings, or as in Three Kings Day.
We really don’t know how many there were. The Bible says nothing about three magi, only that there were 3 gifts. There could have been 2 or 5 or 10. In fact, in Eastern churches, the tradition is that there were 12 of them.
We call them wise men, but however wise they may have been, they didn’t have everything right. (Someone pointed out that if they were Wise Women, they would have asked for directions, arrived on time, made a casserole and brought practical gifts.)
The Wise Men follow the star, but they assume that a newborn king would surely be found in the palace, and so they go to Jerusalem. They go to the center of power, the center of culture, the center of urban sophistication. It’s a pretty good assumption that this is where the new king will be found. They go poking around town, asking if anybody knows anything. But nobody does.
Herod gets wind of this and is understandably irritated and upset by these visitors. There is only room for one king. So he inquired of the experts and asked where the messiah was to be born, and was told that according to the prophet Micah, it was to be Bethlehem. He meets with the Magi, sends them to Bethlehem and asks them to please report back so that he too could pay homage to this newborn king.
Now by the time the Wise Men arrived, the shepherds were long gone. The family is not in a stable, but in a house. According to Matthew, Mary and Joseph settled in Bethlehem and lived there until fleeing for Egypt to escape Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. We put everybody together in our nativity scenes, the shepherds and the cows and donkeys and sheep along with the Wise Men, and that’s OK - it would be hard to have separate nativity sets, one based on Matthew and one based on Luke, but Jesus is not a newborn baby by the time the Wise Men get there.
The Three Kings, the Magi, the Wise Men, whatever you want to call them – they are such a familiar part of the Christmas story that we lose sight of how surprising their appearance really is. Matthew is the most Jewish of the gospels. He takes great pains to tie Jesus to Old Testament prophecy. He clearly has a Hebrew audience in mind.
And yet, right in the middle of the story of Jesus’ birth, we have Gentiles, and not simply Gentiles, but very different Gentiles, strange foreigners from another land coming to worship the newborn king. They are astrologers. They are not Jews, but practicers of some kind of weird foreign religion. This is not at all the kind of thing you would expect to find in Matthew.
What in the world are foreign astrologers doing at the birth of Jesus? How would Mary and Joseph feel about the arrival of these very strange strangers? It’s just bizarre.
The visit of the Wise Men is a clear indication, right from the beginning, that Jesus is not simply a messiah for the Jews. It is a clear message that this birth holds great meaning and great hope for all people. If this birth merits a long, hard journey by astrologers from Persia, then this birth is for everybody.
There are a number of question surrounding this story. Who were the Magi, where were they from, when did they arrive, what was this star they followed, how do you follow a star to a house, on and on. And all of that is very interesting and can shed light for us on the story, help us to understand its significance. But perhaps the bigger question, the more important question this morning is, “What can we learn from the Wise Men?”
They came bearing gifts, but through the journey, through the experience, they received gifts as well, and if we learn from them, they will pass gifts on to us.
To follow a star in search of the King of the Jews, they must have been alert. They must have been attentive. Not everybody looks at the stars and surmises that they need to go and worship a baby born in a far-off land. They were open to new ideas, new revelation, new truth. They were paying attention. We could probably learn something here. We need to pay attention. We need to be open.
Richard Mouw was president of Fuller Seminary in California for 20 years and is still on the faculty there. He told about a job he had while he was a seminary student. For several months he worked third shift at a mirror factory. His title was “prism inspector,” and he inspected car rearview mirrors for possible defects. Each hour, he was to take a ten-minute break to rest his eyes. During those breaks, he would study. Along with the mirrors on his workbench he had textbooks – Hebrew grammar, systematic theology, pastoral counseling, and so forth.
But he said that his attempts to cram study into his work shift were often frustrated by Jed, the night watchman. Jed always seemed to show up right when he had important reading to do. Jed loved to talk and he didn’t seem to take a hint when Mouw especially didn’t want to be distracted. Jed did not strike Mouw as a very bright human being.
He came along one night when Mouw was reading church history. “You really like books, don’t you?” Jed asked. “Yes, Jed, I do, and right now I have to be reading this one for a test tomorrow.” But Jed was oblivious. “Ernie liked books a lot too,” he said. Without even looking up from his book, Mouw said “Ernie who?” “Ernie Hemingway,” he responded.
Well, that got Richard Mouw’s attention. He had been an English major in college and studied Hemingway. “What do you know about Ernest Hemingway?” he asked. Jed proceeded to tell him about working as a hunting and fishing guide for a wealthy physician who owned a large tract of forest land. His employer often hosted Hemingway, and when Hemingway came the doctor would have Jed accompany him on hunting excursions.
“Yeah,” said Jed, “Ernie always had a book. He would read with a flashlight in the tent at night, in his sleeping bag. Sometimes the light kept me awake!” (related in Christian Century, Dec. 25, 2008).
For Mouw, Hemingway was a larger than life figure, and suddenly Jed became a much more significant person – here was someone who knew Ernest Hemingway personally, who spent hours in a tent with him and called him “Ernie.”
Mouw realized later that there was a real defect in the way that he viewed people. Just because Jed had known Hemingway, Mouw now saw him in a very different light.
But Jed was a person of worth all along. Mouw just needed to be open to seeing it. He just needed to hear his story. Everybody has a story, and we need to be open to hearing it.
The Wise Men were open to seeing, open to learning, open to new truth. They saw something in the stars and saw something in this child born to poor parents in a faraway place.
We can learn more from them. The star leads them to the child, and the text says that when they arrived, they were “filled with joy.”
The birth of a child can have that kind of effect on you, as many of us know. Jesus’ birth brought joy. This child represented great hope – hope for peace, hope for goodness, hope for salvation, hope not only for his own people but for all of the world.
The Wise Men, if they had much wisdom at all, had some premonitions that Herod was not completely on the up and up. They had seen oppression. They knew about corruption. And in their travels, they had seen plenty of need in the world. They had seen the demoralizing effects of poverty. They knew about injustice. They knew that life could be harsh. And yet, when they found Jesus, they were filled with joy at the birth of One who could bring change, who could bring hope and peace and usher in a new age.
And then, they worshiped. They recognized that this child was different, was one worthy of worship. As an act of worship, they brought gifts – not practical gifts, not blankets and a changing table and pampers - but gifts to convey honor. Gifts appropriate for a king. Not only was gold of great value, frankincense and myrrh were expensive aromatic resins that were not native to Palestine. They carried a variety of religious and medicinal connotations. They were very valuable gifts.
All in all, it is a very odd scene. Strangers from another part of the world bring expensive, exotic gifts to a child born to peasant parents in Judea, and they are filled with hope and joy. Gentiles are those outside the Hebrew faith, and it is pretty clear that these wise guys are about as outside Judaism as you can get. And Jesus is revealed to them. Jesus is a messiah for all people.
It strikes me that these Magi exercise discernment. There is a dream in which they are warned not to return to Herod. And so they don’t. They take the dream seriously. I imagine that after being around Herod a bit, they could see through his supposed interest and helpfulness as he says that they should tell him where the child is so he can come and pay homage too. After all, they are wise men.
And so after finding the baby, after experiencing great joy and kneeling in worship and offering their finest gifts, they return home, but go home, as the scripture says, by another way.
This is our experience of faith. We meet Jesus, we find joy, we offer our worship and gifts, and when we do that, or perhaps because we have done that, we go home a different way. We may follow the same geographic route, but we have changed. Things are not the same. It’s not that the route is necessarily different; we are different.
Going home a different way means that we are able to focus on what matters and not be deterred. It means avoiding that which, like Herod, might bring us down.
The beginning of the New Year might be a good time to think about going home another way. It’s a good time to think about change. What change would you like to make? How is God calling you to change? How is your experience of following Jesus changing the way that you live and relate?
Sometimes we can get so caught up in doing things the way we have always done them that we can lose sight of what we’re trying to accomplish in the first place. We can forget that there are other ways, other options.
I think that somehow the sacrifice that was needed in making the journey and in giving these extravagant gifts opened the wise men to God’s revelation – made them ready for the Epiphany. It works that way for us. When we truly give of ourselves, when we are truly seeking, we make ourselves available and are better able to perceive God’s leading.
The star was a revelation, an unveiling. It was an epiphany, but it was not the only epiphany. The dream was an epiphany. And the greatest epiphany, the greatest revelation, was Jesus himself.
The Wise Men were filled with joy. They worshiped the child. They brought gifts. But the gifts they received were even greater.
They worshipped, they gave gifts, and they were changed. They went home by another way. May we do the same. Amen.