Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” As one prepares a sermon, you are taught to read the scripture appointed for the day and note what gets your attention. This year, in this place, the thing that grabbed me was that last line. The Magi left by another road.
Of course, there’s a lot going on in this passage – lots of things that might grab our interest.
First there are those wise men from the East. There is a lot of speculation about who these Magi were. They are not specifically documented anywhere other than in this Bible story.
Some say they were magicians who roamed the area; others say they must have been courtly priests serving the rulers of Persia; and still others say they were astrologers who read the heavens and advised rulers on their plans. We really don’t have any idea who they were. What we can observe in this story is that they were thoughtful and curious, willing to take chances.
These sages from the East (legend holds that they were three men, but the text never nails any of that down), presumably dressed in garb that must have seemed very out of place in humble surroundings, kneel at the feet of a simple woman and little child, and offer precious and outrageous gifts. But this story is not really about the wise men…
Then there is that star they are following. It is fascinating to consider too. Scholars and theologians still debate what exactly that star is about. As a matter of fact, just two days ago a friend sent me a link to an hour-long documentary which explores various theories about it. “Some argue that a conjunction of the planets occurred…that Jupiter and Saturn aligned… Another suggests that a supernova occurred where a star violently exploded and gave off enormous amounts of light for a few weeks or a few months…. Some suggest that [it was] Halley’s comet, which passed by in 12 BCE.”[i] his remarkable story “clearly testifies to the power of God, not merely to bring foreigners and those who up until now have been clueless about God’s plan into the fold, but even to manipulate nature itself.”[ii] Or perhaps the star is a literary device created by the gospel writer. Whatever it was, its purpose was to lead humanity to the divine revelation of the Messiah. It is a powerful image. But this story is not really about the star…
One can make a really good argument that the geography included in this story is important. This story mentions “the East,” Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and finally, in reference to the wise men, “their own country,” presumably back in the East. Professor Susan Hedahl notes that “The East is a vague, undefined term and signals to the listener the insertion of a foreign element into the narrative.”[iii] Jerusalem is the seat of power for the region; and Bethlehem is the center of this story’s action, of course. All these locations and all the back and forth delineated in the story indicate the breadth of the story, and the importance and impact of this birth on the whole world. But this story is not really about geography…
We might also note the echoes of Hebrew scripture throughout the story. “Texts quoted or alluded to in this [passage] include Micah 5:2 [and] 2 Samuel 5:2 [these two are combined to justify Bethlehem as the place for the Messiah’s birth]; Numbers 24:17 [alluding to the star]; 1 Kings 10, Isaiah 60, [and] Psalm 72 [all of these pre-echo the gifts of the Magi]; and, [in the verses to follow] the infancy story of Moses.”[iv] Matthew employs all of these references to help the listener understand that this child is truly the Messiah. So, while this story is not really about Hebrew scripture references, I do think we are getting a little warmer. This story is all about that child. These strange foreign men, this remarkable star, these geographic wanderings, and these connections to the ancient faith all bring us to the true point of the story—Jesus Christ.
All of these details are certainly included in Matthew’s gospel to make sure we understand that this is no ordinary child. But they are also the first glimpse of God’s mission through Christ to bring salvation to all of the world, and not just to the Jewish people. By placing these exotic leaders at the manger we learn that this God comes to both shepherds and kings—to rich and poor, to those who expect him and those who don’t. As we see the breadth of humanity coming to the manger to pay homage, we know that we who fall somewhere in between are also welcome to worship the Christ child and dream of the ways he turns everything inside out.
And the story also points out the kind of king that deserves our respect. Not a bully—not one operating out of fear, not one who operates solely out of his own ego, but a king who comes quietly and humbly, and who will have a laser focus on love. Of course, that king is the real object of this story: Jesus Christ, God come to earth as one of us. These sages from the East understand that God is doing something new in Christ; they pay their respects to this most unlikely king, and then avoid the man who would destroy the babe he sees as a rival. They depart “by another road” to evade Herod’s clutches.
Of course, I guess that they were confused by what they had seen and learned. I am guessing they understood the hope of a new king, a better king, but were probably mystified by the details of the story and the ways that it had changed them.
And that is exactly the place I find myself this Christmas. In this season I have found again the beauty, the wonder, and the gift of love that is embodied in this lowly birth. I have taken in again the profound truth that God loves the world so much that God would become one of us, literally embodying that love. And that in the crucifixion and resurrection we know that love is so much bigger than we could ever imagine—that God is willing to die in order to give us the gift of eternal life in God.
And as I take in these truths again, in reflecting on the enormity of that gift, this Epiphany I am thinking I need to find a new way forward. Just as we use the occasion of a new year to commit ourselves to self-improvement, and to building new habits to replace our less helpful habits, I am thinking that I need to find another road forward into 2020.
All of this brings to mind for me that old adage that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” We find ourselves in a moment of history where many of us are restless. This past week I heard so many people, in person and on social media, express a wish that 2020 would be a better year than the one just ended. All of these people, like me, are filled with hope that we might be about to turn a corner, both individually and as a nation. But if we are to make that happen, we must find a new way of being, or doing. If we persist in the ways we have been operating, there is little reason to believe things will change.
So I think I need to find another road to travel. And I think that road is the way of love. Now, don’t get me wrong: It’s not that I haven’t looked to this road before. But I think that, too often, what I really want is for others to walk the way of love. But maybe it is our job to lead others down that path.
And what might that look like? Well, I suspect many of you are already living, breathing embodiments of what it is to travel that path. I saw it in December as you so readily embraced our Angel Tree project. We asked you to buy Christmas presents for people who have less than we, and we asked you to do more than you ever have before. And you came through! You provided Christmas for over 50 of our neighbors. You did so well, in fact, that we are working to create more opportunities for you to love the world in similar ways.
And that’s not all. You support the Lee Food Pantry, feeding our neighbors. You keep this church in good shape and open 24 hours a day as a place to pray and be still. And each of you individually do many things that show the world the way of love.
I am also thinking that we need to be more active as a community in standing up for the way of love in the face of hate and harm. Recent anti-semitic events close by and right here in the southern Berkshires remind me that many of our neighbors may not feel safe. How could we be instruments of love for them? And world events this week have us all worried about the possibility of new and renewed war. Of course, we can pray for peace and harmony, and we will; but what more can we do? How can we actively help the world lean into love?
I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that our world and our community need more examples of love. And more specifically, the world needs the kind of love that is embodied in that babe in a manger. Love that speaks to shepherds and kings alike. Love that is stronger, and more lasting, than all of the hate and anger of our world.
There is one more theme embodied in this story of the Magi through the lens of Matthew. Note that at the beginning, middle, and end of this passage we see the phrase, “pay him homage.” As one theologian has said, “Paying homage to Christ gives the story its purpose, its direction, and its culmination.”[v] The magi first announce that this homage is the reason for their journey. Then Herod says he wants to pay the child homage—and while we know this is a ruse, it a touch of irony from Matthew, as it is clear that, in fact, this is what Herod really needs to do. The one who rules by violence and fear needs to prostrate himself before the power of compassion and justice. He needs to give himself entirely to the grace incarnate in the child whom the magi seek.[vi] Ang finally, the magi find the child, and before they even give their lavish gifts, they kneel down and pay Christ homage. Only after giving themselves completely do they present their gifts.
That homage is the key! In fact, we are very generous. We know how to give, and that’s important. But even more important is our worship. We must give ourselves utterly and completely to Christ, and to his way of love. Giving ourselves completely to Christ is how we can change the world. Remember that beloved hymn from the 1960s? “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love; Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” In 2020, let us pay our homage to Christ by showing the world our love. Amen.
[i] Thomas, Frank A. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. pp. 212, 214.
[ii] Howell, James C. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. pp. 212, 214.
[iii] Hedahl, Susan. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, op cit. p. 214.
[v] Troeger, Thomas H. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, op cit. p. 213.