The story of the Magi is one that has captivated the hearts and imaginations of children and adults alike. It has been brought to life in Christmas pageants and nativity scenes. It has been immortalized in art and in song. Its mythology has grown and grown until fact and fiction have become inseparable in our minds and in our hearts.
So, who were these mysterious wise men, and how does their story speak to us today? Well, there are a number of ways we can answer this question. What I would like to do this morning is make our way through Matthew’s narrative, unpack its details, and try to discern how this ancient story speaks to us who live in a modern age.
Matthew’s story begins in the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, MAGOI or “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.”
The first thing we notice about our text is that the wise men do not journey directly to Bethlehem. They stop in the city that was the epicenter of Jewish life and Roman power in that region…Jerusalem. When they hear that a new king was born, they go to the place where all new rulers appear…Jerusalem. It is the most logical location People of power go to cities of power in order to get more power. It’s the way things work in our world.
In our country the location would be Washington, D.C. If we heard that a new ruler was coming into power, we would not travel to Bethlehem, PA. We would make a beeline for Washington, D.C. And so the wise men travel to Jerusalem because this is where all new kings would logically appear.
The interesting thing about this detail is that this new king is NOT found in Jerusalem but in a little, hick town called Bethlehem; a city in the “hill country” of Judah, five miles south of Jerusalem. This detail of the story tells us that the king the wise men are searching for is a different kind of king than the ones they are used to dealing with. This king appears, not in places of power, hobnobbing with the rich and famous. This king appears in a rural town among a forgotten people.
Friends in Christ, this is good news for us who live in a world where rulers are easily corrupted and governments cave in to lobbyists and special interest groups. It serves as a reminder that Jesus, the ruler of our hearts, is found among the poor and the needy, the lost and forgotten. If we really want to see him face to face we will NOT see him in religious leaders running for political office or in T.V. preachers living lavish lifestyles. We will find Jesus sitting among the homeless in Pritchard Park shivering in the cold, waiting for the shelter to open for the night. We will find Jesus holding the hand of a battered woman who is crying out for justice and for safety. We will find Jesus huddled close to a space heater with a family of five because it is the only source of heat in their entire house. We will find Jesus standing in a long line at a soup kitchen knowing full well it will be the only meal he will have today.
Our gospel lesson is more radical than first meets the eye. We have romanticized this story and whitewashed its details. We have filled it with kids in bathrobes and fake beards or silent statues looking down blissfully at the Christ child. But make no mistake about it, our gospel lesson is powerful stuff, indeed!
It’s power becomes even more profound when we realize where in the East these mysterious visitors come from. John Pilch says they were, perhaps, “very high ranking political-religious advisors to the rulers of the Median and then the Persian empires which is roughly equivalent to the modern countries of Iran and Iraq.”
Take a look, for a moment, at the figures on the altar this morning, Do you see any Iraqis? Any Iranians? Not a single one! There are two white magi. One with a crown. One with a turban. The third magi looks like he is from Africa. Furthermore, the holy family looks like they are from Northern Europe. Nice, little white Protestants with not a single Middle Eastern face in sight!
Imagine what this scene would look like if the wise men had faces like those we see on our T.V.’s from Afghanistan or Syria or Iraq? This nice little white nativity would challenge us to the core because it would contain people from the places we seem to fear most in the world right now They would not be our enemies or terrorists or godless heathens. They would be our brothers and sisters who are also searching for God. Let us think about that for a minute and, hopefully, we will allow this story to confront us in ways that it has never confronted us before!
While we’re doing that, let’s continue with the story! Herod is frightened by the visit of the magi and the news of a new king who might overthrow his government He gathers the Jewish chief priests and scribes and asks them to determine where this king was to be born. When they arrive at the conclusion that Bethlehem is the place, Herod tells the wise men “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.”
This portion of the story reminds us of a truth we know all too well: Politicians lie! They bend and spin the truth to their advantage. Herod is no exception to this rule! In the next chapter of Matthew’s gospel we learn the ugly truth that Herod did not plan on worshipping Jesus but wanted to kill him. Matthew tells us that thanks to intervening angels, fights to Egypt, and magi who sneak across the border and return to their homeland, this did not take place. Herod’s secret plan would be foiled and it would be up to Herod’s son Antipas, as well as a governor named Pontius Pilate, to decide the fate of Jesus. But that’s a story for another time!
Our gospel lesson concludes with a star that stops over the place where Jesus was born. Matthew tells us that when the magi 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.”
This last portion of the story is the part we like the most. It makes us smile and fills our hearts with joy. Perhaps the most important thing we learn from this portion of Matthew’s story is that the magi hedge their bets on this new king rather than the old king Herod. They ignore the power-hungry and choose the powerless. They take the tools of their trade, the best they had to offer, and gave it NOT to Herod as a bribe but to the Christ child as an act of worship.
If we truly hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people this last portion of our gospel lesson also gives us a lot to thin about. Each of us has many treasures which God has placed in our possession. These treasures many be monetary. They may include property and possessions. They may be the gift of our time as well as our creativity and imagination. They may be our hard work ethic or our ability to inspire and influence others. Whatever treasures God has given us, we have a choice. We can give them to the Herod’s of this world or we can give them to the Christ Child. We can use our treasures to serve ourselves, or we can use them in service to others. We can spend our time pursuing earthly goods or we can spend our time pursuing those things that are lasting and eternal
The Christ Child, as recorded later in Matthew 5, put it this way “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
This passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount reminds us of the final question the story of the magi asks us “What are we going to do with our treasure?” Will we follow the path the wise men or the path of King Herod? Will we use our energy and resources to find the Christ Child among the poor and neglected in our world? Or will we use our energy and resources to bribe and impress the Herods who live among us?
This is a question we will all need to answer as we ponder the meaning of the Epiphany story. May this season of light fill us with light and guide us to the many places in our world where the Christ Child is to be found. AMEN
Copyright ©2017 David Eck