Text: Matthew 2:1-12
The Christmas season is over. But barely. Yesterday was the twelfth day of Christmas, the day when according to the song, the gift received was 12 drummers drumming.
Today is Epiphany. The word Epiphany means showing, or revealing, or manifestation, and the season of Epiphany remembers Christ being revealed to the world. And it begins with the visit of the Wise Men.
Now we have a sister church in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico and we are planning a mission trip to Puerto Rico this summer. In Puerto Rico, today is known as Three Kings Day. It is a day of great celebration. Businesses are closed and the whole country is feasting. It is on Three Kings Day, more than Christmas Day, that gifts are given, in honor of the gifts of the wise men.
This year, Epiphany, Or Three Kings Day, falls on a Sunday, and we will be looking this morning at the Wise Men, as they are called.
Just who were these Wise Men? We don’t know, for sure. The Greek word that is used here is transliterated as “Magi.” This is the root of the word magic. The word is most often translated as “astrologers” or “wise men,” but in the only other occurrence in the New Testament, in Acts chapter 13, it is translated “magician” or “sorcerer.”
But a number of scholars have pointed to a different probable meaning here. Cory Driver points out that the word Magi originally meant the religious leaders of the Medes in the language of Zoroastrian scriptures, in Persia. Because Matthew’s gospel points out that Jesus’ visitors were “Magi from the East,” Driver says the meaning here is probably less about magicians and more about Zoroastrian priests. The Zoroastrians were deeply interested in the stars. Now it might seem very strange for priests of another religion to travel hundreds of miles to honor and worship the king of the Jews until we consider the deep religious impact of Jews on Persian society across the preceding centuries.
King Darius I appointed Daniel (of the Lion’s Den fame) as head of the council of presidents of the Persian empire. King Artaxerxes gave the priest Ezra gifts to furnish the temple and to renew priestly activity in Israel, and directed that wood be supplied from royal forests to reconstruct the temple in Jerusalem. And then the Persian king Ahasuerus married the Jewish woman Esther and his life was saved by Mordecai the Jew.
So Jews were well-known in Persian society and there has been a continuous presence of Jews in Persia, now Iran, to this day, although most Persian Jews not live in Israel or the United States. The hopes of the Jews for a Messiah would have been familiar to their Zoroastrian neighbors. And Zorastrian religion shared a hope for a Messiah. It is entirely plausible that some of their priests traveled to Bethlehem, following a star, seeking the Messiah.
We sing We Three Kings, a great Christmas carol, but the reality is they were not kings and the scripture gives no indication there were three of them. That is the tradition, based on the fact that there were three gifts, but the Bible doesn’t say that. In the Eastern church, the tradition is that there were 12 of them, and there are actually paintings with as many as 15 Wise Men. And it is even possible that the Wise Persons who followed the star were not all men.
The Magi are usually there in nativity scenes, but they were not at the birth – their arrival was perhaps some months later. They don’t arrive at the stable and find Jesus in a manger; they arrive at a house and find the child with Mary, his mother. Joseph may have been there, but he is not mentioned.
I know of churches with large nativity sets that will have the Wise Men somewhere down the hallway on the first Sunday of Advent, and each week they move closer until after Christmas, on Epiphany or the nearest Sunday, the Wise Men finally make their appearance in the sanctuary with the other characters.
Now, however wise these visitors from the East may be, they didn’t get everything right. They had trouble finding the place they were looking for. They follow the star but apparently assume that a newborn king of the Jews would surely be found in Jerusalem. They go to the center of power, the center of wealth, the center of culture. They go poking around town, asking if anybody knows anything. But nobody does.
Herod gets wind of this and is understandably irritated 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. While there were prophecies concerning Jerusalem, his religious advisors mention that there is a prophecy from the prophet Micah concerning Bethlehem. So Herod meets with the Wise Men, sends them to Bethlehem and asks them to please report back so that he too could pay homage to this newborn king. (In other words, he lets these visitors from the East do his reconnaissance work for him.)
The Wise Men are such a familiar part of the Christmas story that we lose sight of just 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, from another culture, from another religion, coming to worship the newborn king. What in the world are foreign astrologers or Zoroastrian priests doing at the birth of Jesus? How would Mary and Joseph feel about the arrival of these strangers? What would the neighbors think?
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.
Notice the effects of the Wise Men’s pilgrimage and the actions that they take.
First, they are filled with joy. The birth of a child can have that kind of effect on a person as we all know. A child always represents great hope – it means that the chain of life will continue, a new generation has arrived, the family will go on. And we would like to think that the future is wide open. Who knows what this child will become? An artist, a scientist, a doctor, a musician, an athlete, a leader, a parent perhaps, someday. Who knows what this child will experience, the things it will see, the places it will go. A birth is an occasion for great joy.
This is all true for any baby. The birth of Jesus brought all of these feelings for his parents, but more besides, and not only for his family. 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. Making a long journey as they had, they had seen their share of oppression. They had seen Roman corruption. They had seen the demoralizing effects of poverty, which was rampant at that time in that part of the world, just as it is today. The fact that they made this journey seems to indicate that they had some level of restlessness within their hearts – they were seekers. Life was not all joy. And yet, when they finally found Jesus, they were filled with joy at the birth of One who might bring change and usher in a new age.
The Wise Men were filled with joy, and they worshiped. As an act of worship, they brought gifts – not practical gifts, not blankets and a changing table and pampers, but gifts to convey honor. Precious gifts for one who was precious. Gifts appropriate for a king. Not only was gold of great value, but frankincense and myrrh were expensive aromatic resins that were not native to Palestine. These gifts carried a variety of religious and medicinal connotations. These were gifts to welcome a king.
It is all very strange, really. Strangers from another part of the world bring expensive, exotic gifts to a child born to peasant parents in Judea. If this birth could mean something to them, it means something to everyone.
But then comes an interesting part of the story. These are people who are open to revelations. They have followed a star. And now they have a dream. Whether they all had this same dream, it does not say. But there was a dream in which they are warned not to return to Herod.
And so they don’t. They take the dream seriously. After finding the baby, after experiencing great joy and kneeling in worship and offering their finest gifts, they return home, but Matthew reports that they go home by another road – 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. Oh, we may follow the same geographic route, but we have changed. Things are not the same. When we go home, things are 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 those things which, like Herod, might bring us down.
A number of years ago, Marla Runyon placed third in the qualifying trials for the Women’s 1500 meter race, earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. What made this especially notable is that Marla Runyon is legally blind. Diagnosed with Stargardt's Disease at age nine, the 31 year-old Marla had been legally blind for 22 years. But she did not consider this to be a handicap. “It is not a factor or an excuse for a bad race,” she said. In the Olympics, Marla finished eighth, just three seconds behind the medal winners.
How does she do it? She cannot see colors, and what she does see is a fuzzy blob. In a race she just follows the blob of figures in front of her. She told TV commentator Tom Hammonds that the real difficulty was in rounding the final turn and “racing toward a finish line that I can’t see. I just seem to know where it is.”
Here at the beginning of a New Year, looking ahead to a wide-open future, we are a lot like Marla. We are all “racing toward a finish line we cannot see.” Much as we might think we know what lies ahead, we are all moving into a future that we cannot predict.
There is more to the story of the magi finding the baby Jesus than just a simple delivery of gifts with the star serving as a kind of GPS system. This is a story of journey and discovery that teaches us a lot about what it means to search for God in the midst of our own life experiences.
Commentator William Arnold notes that these wise people had been studying. They knew their history. They were familiar with the hopes and prophecies for a Messiah, and were willing to recognize a sign when they saw it.
But then, these scholarly folk did not keep their noses in the books all the time. They observed the world around them and watched was going on.
And they were willing to risk. Not knowing for sure what would come of it, they set out on this long and improbable journey, following the insight that had been revealed to them.
And then, they were willing to ask for directions along the way. They made a poor choice of whom to ask for help – Herod would not be my first choice personally – but we would do well to follow their impulse and willingness to ask for assistance on our journey.
And then having found the object of their search, having found Jesus, they responded with all the gratitude they could muster.
But that was not all. They remained open to insight, open to revelation, open to God. And they received and responded to the warning to avoid Herod and go home by another way.
I’m thinking this morning about the idea of following a star. Of finding direction. It may literally come from the skies, or maybe from what we see and observe around us. It may come from others when we ask for a little help. It may come from scripture, maybe something like a few verses from the prophet Micah. It may come in a dream – possibly the kind of dreams we have when we are asleep, but just as possibly the kind of dreams that we have when we are wide awake. Or it may come in the form of simply doing our best, day by day, to follow Jesus.
It takes courage to follow that star when it may lead you to a new or unfamiliar place. It can be even be a little bit dangerous at times. But as was the case with the Wise Persons, following that star can lead to exceeding great joy.
It is a new year, we have a clean slate, it is a time when we may think about new directions and new possibilities. The Good News is that Christ is with us, walking beside us, through the difficult times and toward that joy. And here’s the other thing to remember: the Wise Persons, how many of them there may have been, traveled that road - followed that star -together. May it be so with us. Amen.