Epiphany, Year B, January 7, 2018
Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you ever noticed just how weird the story of the Three Wise Men is? It is seriously strange. Let’s start with the so-called ‘wise men’ themselves. There’s a lot of folklore about them, but the Bible actually tells us very little. It doesn’t even tell us how many there were. We assume there were three because they brought three gifts, but there could have been two or ten or a hundred. And they weren’t kings, they were magi—a word which could describe anything from street magicians to court entertainers to astrologers. And it’s worth noting that every other time someone is described as “magi” in the Bible, it’s not a compliment. Magi are hucksters, manipulators, people who use unearthly powers—or claims of unearthly powers—to manipulate people and cheat them out of money. They don’t tend to respond well to the power of God in Christ Jesus, which they usually regard either as a threat or a way to prop up their own act. That’s the case every time magi show up in the Bible—except for here, when they come seeking Jesus, and worship him.
These guys were probably astrologers, not street magicians, because no street magician could have afforded the gifts they brought, and because they were watching the stars. Somehow, they have figured out from watching the skies that a new Jewish king has been born, and they come to Jerusalem figuring that the palace of the king is the right place to find him. Except King Herod hasn’t had a child or grandchild born recently. So Herod is both surprised and dismayed. (Also, I would point out that while we tend to assume that the magi were following a single extraordinarily bright star, if that were the case, surely SOMEONE else in all of Judea would have noticed it and Herod wouldn’t have been caught by surprise, which is why I tend to think they saw a conjunction of stars or a comet or something that they interpreted to have symbolic meaning. But it doesn’t really matter, in the end. They saw something, and it brought them to Herod, and, eventually, to the young Jesus and his family.)
Anyway, when the magi appear, Herod calls up the Temple and asks them where the promised king given by God was supposed to show up—not because he wants to worship him or give up his throne but because he wants to kill his rival. The magi take the information, and that plus the star leads them right to the house where the baby Jesus and his mother Mary and stepfather Joseph are living. (If you’re wondering what happened to the inn, the magi didn’t show up the night of Jesus birth, but some time later, possibly not until Jesus was around two years old.) They were living in a house by this point, but it couldn’t have been a very nice house because they were fairly poor. And on finding this small, poor house, inhabited by peasants, completely the opposite of what they thought they were seeking, the magi are overjoyed! (Which may be the strangest part of the whole story. Think about it: how often are you overjoyed to find out you’re completely wrong?) They come in and paid homage to Jesus—they may have worshipped him, or they may knelt and kissed his feet as some countries required when people met their king, the Bible is unclear. They open their treasure chests and bring out fine, costly gifts worth a king’s ransom. And then they leave. And nobody ever hears anything about them ever again.
Imagine you are Mary and Joseph. While Jesus’ birth was kind of wild—in a stable, with shepherds and angels coming to see the baby—you’ve had some time to get into your new routine. You have a house, presumably a job, you’re getting used to being parents. Then, one day, out of the blue, a group of weird foreigners show up with gifts worth a king’s ransom. They don’t speak your language, they don’t look like you or dress like you, and they are pagans who worship other gods and practice magic. They say they got here by following a star. Now, God has never used astrology. Sometimes the stars respond to things God does, but God doesn’t use stars to communicate with humans, and the actions of the stars don’t control human destiny. Astrology is something humans make up, just like every idol in the world. Yet somehow God has used the stars to draw these foreign weirdos to his son—your son. They kneel before the baby, like a person would kneel before their king, and then they give you the gifts, and then they leave as suddenly as they arrived and you never hear from them again. Bet they told that story around the dinner table a lot.
I wonder why the magi came. They weren’t looking for a religious revelation; if they were, they would have asked for Jesus in the Temple, not in a palace. They were looking for a new political leader, which is why they went to Herod in the first place. But Judea was a backwater. An insignificant territory of the great Roman Empire, which maintained its own king only so long as that king spent enough time and money sucking up to the Roman Emperor. To most of the world, which person was King of Israel was pretty irrelevant. The neighboring kingdoms and provinces might send a small gift and congratulations on hearing a new prince was born, but nobody else would bother. And the magi probably weren’t sent by one of the neighboring kingdoms, because they would have said so. Given the mercenary nature of most magi in the Bible, I wonder if they intended their journey as a sort of job hunt. “Hey, see how good we are at astrology, we learned that you had an heir born through the stars!” And then they show up and the king hasn’t had a child or grandchild born after all—how embarrassing to be wrong. There’s no way to know why they went to find the new king whose birth they saw heralded in the stars, but come they did. And they didn’t let getting things wrong the first time discourage them, either; they went on to Bethlehem where Jesus actually was.
They get to Bethlehem and what they find is nothing like they were expecting. Instead of riches, they find poverty. Instead of power, they find weakness. And instead of politics, they find the son of God, who will bring light to the whole world. What they found was the opposite of what they thought they were looking for … and yet they were overjoyed. Think about your own life. I’m sure there have been times when you have gone looking for one thing and found something completely different instead. I’m sure there have been times when you realized that you were absolutely, completely, and totally wrong about something big. It happens to all of us sooner or later. But very few of us react with joy to learning that we’re wrong. Even if we learn something better, even if it’s a positive change, we find some reason to be upset about it. Shame of being wrong, or fear of the unknown, or resentment at looking foolish—we find some reason to be mad. But when the magi found out they were wrong—when they found out God had been leading them somewhere stranger and better than they had imagined—they were overjoyed. They kept following even when they weren’t sure where they were going, and they rejoiced when God led them someplace new.
I think there’s something to be learned from that. God does new things. God does things we’re not expecting, things we could never have imagined. God has plans for us and for the world that we’re not aware of. And sometimes, while we’re headed off to do our own thing, God radically redirects us to someplace new. Even when we think we know what’s going on, and even when we think we’re going where God wants us to go, we may be wrong. We may be clueless. We may be headed somewhere else entirely. And when God shows up in our lives to put us on a new path or reveal things to us that we don’t expect, we should respond to it with joy, and adjust our plans accordingly, instead of trying to force things back to the way we think they should be going. Even if it means admitting we were wrong. And that light they followed is here, with us; even on the darkest night, even when shadows creep in, that light continues to guide. Even when we it takes us places we wouldn’t have imagined.
And the other thing to remember about this story is that all people are God’s people. The magi were foreigners. We don’t know who they were or where they were from, but we do know they were from someplace far away. Throughout the Old Testament, in many places such as our first reading today, God promises that his light will shine for all people, and all people will come. Not just those who already know him, not just the people already gathered around his table, but all people of every tribe and race and nation. The magi were the first example of that promise being fulfilled in Christ Jesus, but they weren’t the last. We are here today because that light they followed kept spreading throughout not just Judea, but throughout all lands, just as it keeps spreading today. Mary and Joseph were probably surprised by those weird foreigners, but they accepted them as people sent by God. May we also follow the light of God as the magi did, and accept those whom God’s light brings to us, as Mary and Joseph did.