Please Pray with me: O God, open our hearts and minds to the Light of your word read and preached this day. May the meditations of ALL of our hearts be acceptable, God, our Rock. And salvation. Amen.
My focus today is going to be on our Christian day of Epiphany, January 6, this Thursday, when the church traditionally celebrates the coming of the Magi to Jesus. When we talk about Epiphany, we need to go back to our Bibles, and sort out all the traditions that have surrounded this passage and this holiday. Many, if not most of the traditions, are NOT in the Bible Story. Whether it is a Sunday School Christmas pageant, or classical art or Christmas cards, or the hymns we sing! We see depicted three Wisemen or Kings. The Bible does not say there were three visitors. We assume that number by the list of gifts that are given, which are recorded in the Bible.
Nor were these visitors Kings. Wise they were, but more about that later. Of course they were men, knowing the era and the cultures. There are also many traditions about other characteristics of these visitors. Some say one was old, one middle age and one young. Others say they represent parts of the then known world, or are from different races.
The next traditions that are not in the Bible are the meanings given to the gifts. Theologians have suggested the gifts symbolize Jesus’ royalty (gold), his divinity (frankincense), and his suffering (myrrh), but it’s difficult to say this was the magi’s intent. As this narrative ends, the Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and “they went back to their own country by another route (Matthew 2:12). Note, there is nothing that makes specific their country, not to mention it is singular, not plural. So let us focus for a few minutes on the things we DO know and that are true about this story in Matthew, that is a story that changed the meaning of who this baby Jesus, the Christ and Messiah was and is!
The reign of all of the Herods we read about during Jesus’ life, were known for their terror and horror. All were egotistical, insecure petty potentates, in with the Romans and clueless about God. This is Herod the Great, who ruled from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. Any study of Herod will immediately show that the man was a ruthless and paranoid tyrant. He would easily kill his own sons, or one of his wives, or the high priest, if he thought any of these were in any way conspiring against him. And so the thought of a king being born was an immediate threat. Especially if it was the promised Messiah, the king of the Jews. Herod, you see, was not Jewish. He had tried to ingratiate himself to the Jews by marrying into a Jewish family and by building the temple in Jerusalem. But he could not be trusted; and he himself trusted no one. So he and his court were thrown into a panic.
The magi may have come from a land that was antagonistic to Rome, to whom Herod was responsible, and so their visit raised many questions. Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart released a fascinating translation of the New Testament in 2017.* For him, Matthew 2:1 reads : “Magians arrived in Jerusalem from Eastern parts….” Magians? The Greek” magoi” in the first century were “men of the Zoroastrian priestly caste of the Persians and Medes. These Zoroastrian priests divined or knew the future through interpreting dreams and astrology. It is important to remember these traveling men are Gentiles. These Magi were famous for their learning, and wisdom. When they observed the movements of stars and planets they carefully recorded everything they saw. Anything out of the ordinary was taken to be some kind of an omen.
Now they had seen a star that could not be identified. These men were diligent to discover what it meant. The text suggests that the Magi had learned the star indicated one who was to be born would be special, worthy of worship. “Where is the new born king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” [v.2] Then, when they came to Israel, where would they have gone looking for a “king” but to the palace? These Magi followed a star. They knew that the heavenly sight they saw was this new King’s star! Yes, there has been immense speculation through the ages that what the Magi saw was the conjunction of two planets or a comet, or some other celestial phenomenon but that is not key to the point of this story.
The Jewish scholars knew exactly where the Magi should look for Jesus. They referred to what a prophet wrote and we know that was the prophet Micah and is found in Chapter 5 verse 2 of that Old Testament book and is quoted in this Matthew passage. This is also Matthew’s way of confirming that Jesus was indeed the promised Shepherd of Israel.
The Magi brought gifts to this child they found when the star they had followed stopped over a house. The gifts they brought were those that honored and acknowledged Jesus as royalty, as a king! Another prophet, Isaiah, had indicated [60:1-6] that God will shine upon Israel and nations will come to this Light and radiance. People will come from everywhere and they will come with gold and incense, or frankincense as Matthew names it. Isaiah also talks about “countless camels” [v.6] which are often in Nativity creche scenes. But Isaiah didn’t have the advantage of Matthew, to know how Jesus had suffered for pushing for truth and justice and so today’s scripture says myrrh, an ancient medicine, was also a gift. Knowing the horror of the reigns of all the Herods, we wouldn’t need to be warned in a dream not to return to nasty king Herod!
Now to some thoughts about how important this story is for who the Messiah is! James C. Howell says he imagines Matthew winking a little, hoping we will notice his subtle clue about what life is like once we’ve met Jesus. Nothing is the same!! you find yourself going another way!! Herod certainly represents the response of the unbeliever to the news of the coming of the Messiah. He wants to know about it, but is not interested to go four and a half miles to see for himself. In fact, he is more concerned that the presence of the Christ will interfere with his power and position. The world is filled with
people who like Herod want to know, but are not actually looking for the One who will save them.
The Magi were very diligent to learn all they could about the star and the “new king”. Do we take an example from them in being as diligent in reading and meditating on the Bible so we keep grounded in Jesus? The magi can teach us something about giving. What would a baby do with gold or incense, much less myrrh?. They brought gifts of immense value; they brought what was precious to themselves. They parted with what they adored to adore the Lord. We are not so wise in our giving. [James C. Howell] So we probably should simply say that these were costly gifts, and so they were certainly appropriate for a king.. And, they would have been welcomed by Joseph and Mary who were very poor. Do we give gifts that are welcomed by the poor?
At Christ’s manifestation to the Magi, even as a child, they also worship. The worship of Christ’s person pervades Matthew’s Gospel in a way that is a clue to Jesus’ ultimately divine identity. That’s the Epiphany Christians celebrate: the manifestation of the Christ, even as a child, as the star-illumined divine who will be “ruler” and “shepherd” of Israel (Mt. 2:6). Worship includes submission, adoration, and homage. Only if Jesus is divine could he be worshiped. And we like the Magi need to follow the Light that is Jesus and continually worship him. The Magi gave an even greater gift–that of alerting the world that this special child came for EVERYONE, a very radical gift then– and now! We sometimes forget that the gift of Jesus is For All the World. That means everyone in everyplace, even if that makes us uncomfortable. All means All!! There are still the King Herods of the world who do NOT want the gift of Jesus, no matter how he is wrapped! The gift of inclusion is one that is hard for us to give freely. We constantly need to be reminded that Jesus came For All the World!! We need more MEN like the Magi, willing to be bold and take risks in witnessing to their faith in our time when people are lost, but they are not looking to churches for answers.
Stars are symbolic of many things. For some, they are a spiritual or sacred symbol. For example, an eight-pointed star is a Native American symbol of hope and guidance. For others, stars are a symbol of divinity, direction (as the Northern Star), or excellence. The star of Bethlehem is one of guidance. In the Bible we know that for generations the Jews have been awaiting the coming of the Messiah, literally looking to the skies. Yet, the Jewish leaders miss it all! It is Magi who have traveled from another country that understand something very important has happened. And even after the Magi leave, we know the Jewish leaders for the most part were blind to Jesus being the Messiah. He
didn’t fit what they expected and anticipated!
This reminds me of a saying that is so important for all of us to consider: “Don’t miss the gift because it isn’t packaged as you expected!” A whole sermon could plumb that saying and its implications for our ministries. Traipsing off after a star seems rather foolish; I can only hope to be yet one more fool traipsing off after the Light of the world and spreading the Good News that Jesus is for everyone. I pray everyone here is also willing to go anywhere to be a Light in the world as Jesus came For All the World!! In my family with my Dad being clergy and both he and Mom being school teachers, Epiphany, or a day near it was when we celebrated with friends. We had an open house and foods from around the world as a reminder to all who came that this special baby Jesus we had been celebrating came For All the World!!! Another reminder of Jesus coming for the entire world is displayed in the narthex, where you can see depictions of the Magi, Mary, Joseph and Jesus as portrayed in a variety of cultures. Epiphany is not only a time of celebration, but a time of closing: taking down the tree, burning the Christmas greenery, putting the nativity scenes away. As this high holy season of Christmastide ends, perhaps the thoughts we need most to hold are those opening words of Howard Thurman’s poem,
“The Work of Christmas:”
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:….”
Arise, and go forth to shine for all the world to see. We go to spread the good news of light and love, righteousness and justice. Go now and follow the star that will guide you on your journey this week, this year, and forever. As the Magi of old, we go forth in trust and excitement, transformed in the presence of the child of light. May the blessing of the God of light rest upon you and fill you with light. Amen.