Those Weird, Wacky Wise Men

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.



Joyful Surprises

Epiphany, Year C, Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Preached by 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 to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I have sometimes wondered why we give presents at Christmas instead of Epiphany.  It seems to me that Epiphany would be the holiday logically associated with presents, because Epiphany is the day we celebrate the Magi, who came to the infant Jesus and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

We read their story today in the Gospel lesson.  Now, there are a lot of legends surrounding the wise men that have developed over the years.  For example, somehow or other along the way people decided that their names were Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar.  The Bible doesn’t even tell us how many there were, let alone what their names were.  Also, people have assumed that they were kings, when in fact they probably weren’t.  The Bible tells us very little about them.  They were wise men, they were from the East, and they brought gifts.  The most likely explanation is that they were a delegation of Persian astrologers, priests of Zoroaster who believed that everything could be predicted through the movements of the sun, moon, stars, and other heavenly bodies.  We don’t know exactly what they saw in the sky; an unusual conjunction of stars is the most likely explanation, but a supernova or shooting star is also possible.  Whatever they saw, it sent them many hundreds of miles to Roman-ruled Judea, to the palace of King Herod, to do homage to a new-born king of the Jews.

You can imagine what a rude shock that must have been to Herod.  Herod was a Roman puppet who had been appointed King of the Jews because he was good at sucking up to Caesar.  He was a man who had worked hard to put himself at the top of the ladder.  He had no legitimate claim to power, and his own people detested him, but he had amassed great power and great wealth, which he spent on large building projects.  He played the political game with great panache.  To ingratiate himself to his Roman masters, Herod built Roman cities on Jewish soil, complete with pagan temples.  To appease the Jewish people, he greatly expanded the Temple in Jerusalem, making it grander and more beautiful than it had ever been. Herod could be cruel and unjust if it served his own interests, and he was willing to execute members of his own family—even his wife, Mariamne—if they stood in his way.

Herod had worked hard and sacrificed much to get to where he was, so it’s not surprising that he took the news of a new-born king of the Jews so badly.  After all, he had not had any children born lately, so the new king could only be someone coming to supplant him and take away all that he had.  So he turned to the chief priests and the elders, to ask them where this new king might be found.

The priests knew that only one king would be great enough for God to proclaim his birth in the heavens: the promised Messiah, the king born of David’s line, who would be greater than David ever was and restore the people of Israel.  They weren’t quite sure exactly what the Messiah would do or what he would be like, but they knew that he would do a new thing, something wonderful.  Good news, right?

Well, not if you’re Herod.  Not if you’ve spent all your time and energy climbing the ladder, working the system, and getting where you want to go.  He liked things as they were just fine, thank you.  No messiahs needed, he’d gotten exactly where he wanted to be.  And if he’d done terrible things along the way, well, having done all that for power he certainly wasn’t going to give it up, even if the king sent by God to save them was finally there!  For all his rhetoric about serving God, Herod served only one master: himself.  So it’s no wonder that when news came that God was doing something new, Herod promptly resolved to stop it by killing this new king.

What’s more surprising is the response of the rest of Jerusalem.  Jerusalem was the seat of the Roman-controlled government, but it was also the home of the Temple and the Sanhedrin, the most important parts of the Jewish religious establishment, and it was the richest city in Judea.  Roman-ruled or not, it was a Jewish city.  In other words, the inhabitants of Jerusalem should have been the happiest people in the world to hear that God’s chosen Messiah, the new king of David’s line, was finally here.  Yet they, like Herod, were afraid.  Why?

I wonder if it has to do with who the messengers were.  God had sent his Messiah … and the priests and the chief scribes hadn’t even noticed?  God was doing something new in the world, and they hadn’t even realized it?  They were so wrapped up in the cares and concerns of their daily life, the office politics and the family feuds and the gossip and work and hobbies that they couldn’t see what God was doing, didn’t hear his call.  They were so oblivious to what God was doing around them that it took a foreign, pagan priest to announce it?  To think about what that must have been like, imagine if Christ came back to Earth and we didn’t notice until a Buddhist monk from Tibet showed up trying to find him.  That’s about what happened!  It must have been so frightening to have God break through into their world out of the blue, telling them that something new was going to happen.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes people would rather stick with a bad situation than take a chance at something better, something new?  How sometimes we’d rather stay stuck in a rut in the mud rather than change?  As Hamlet said, we would rather bear those ills we have/than fly to others that we know not of.  People in abusive relationships will stay in them because they’re afraid things might be worse elsewhere.  People stay in jobs they don’t like because they’re afraid another might be worse.  We fear what we don’t know, we fear what we don’t understand.  And when those wise men came from the east, asking about the new king, all of Jerusalem was afraid of what that meant.  Sure, they were ruled by the Romans through Herod, and things were pretty bad.  And yes, God had promised them that things would be better when the Messiah came.  But they didn’t know what “better” would look like.  All they knew was that it would be different.

God’s plans rarely look anything like we expect.  Jesus’ birth is a perfect example: God chose a nobody from a backwater town in a small corner of the Roman Empire to be the mother of his son, and chose to have him be born in a stable.  And then God chose to announce it with shepherds, the poor schmucks who did the dirty work nobody else wanted, and foreign pagans!  And when that baby grew up and started his ministry, he didn’t change the world by raising up an army and forcibly throwing out the Romans, building a normal kingdom with God as the king, he did it by teaching, and then by dying to save the very people who most wanted to destroy and deny him.  We know the stories so well that we take it for granted, that of course that’s what the Messiah was going to look like!  Of course that’s what all the prophecies meant!

We shake our heads that the people in Jesus’ day, from the disciples to the religious authorities, from the lepers to the kings, kept getting it wrong and misinterpreting who Jesus was and what he came to do.  But the truth is, in their shoes we would be just as bad.  Because even in our own time, even knowing the story of Jesus, even having Jesus in our midst, we do the same thing.  We can’t see the surprising, new things God is doing in our midst.  We get so caught up in our worries, in our assumptions, in playing the game the way the world says we should that we miss what God is doing around us and in us.

What if, instead, we followed the example of the wise men?  It had to have been a big surprise to them, too.  The Jews were an insignificant people, so to have the birth of their new king so momentous as to be recorded in the stars … that must have been a shock.  Surely, only a new emperor rated that kind of introduction to the world!  Yet when God called the Magi, they came.  They left their ordinary lives, their expectations, their assumptions, and followed where God led.  And they were overwhelmed with joy!  Instead of focusing on their fears, they focused on the new thing God was doing.

God has always done surprising things, things nobody can predict, and God is still doing them today and will keep doing them in the future.  What that will look like I have no clue—nobody’s ever been much good at predicting what form God’s saving actions will take.  But here is something I feel pretty safe in predicting: it won’t be what we expect.  It will be a surprise.  God will do new things, wonderful things, filled with joy and wonder and love and grace.  No matter how dark things get, God will continue to shine in our darkness like the stars that guided the Wise Men to Bethlehem.  Our task is not to predict what God will do, or (God forbid) to assume that God will do what we think he should.  Our task, as Christians, is to look for the light and follow it.  Our task is to let ourselves be joyful at God’s presence, and rejoice in the new things God is doing in us and around us.  May we, like the Wise men, leave our fear behind and follow where God leads.