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Epiphany C Sermon
Matthew 2:1-12
January
6, 2019

 

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Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, 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.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘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.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us, in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

“We three kings of Orient are…” So begins the hymn that we will sing this morning while our offering is collected, the hymn which many enjoy hearing during the Christmas season because it tells the story of some of the visitors to the Holy Family after the shepherds have left. The problem with the words to this song is that they are not very faithful to the story from our Gospel reading this morning! They are not kings. Nor are they wise men as our English translation of Matthew 2:1 puts it. They are Magi, some odd, mysterious characters from the east who we don’t know much about. The only other time in the New Testament that we hear of Magi is in the 13th chapter of Acts, where a Magi named, “Bar-Jesus” is also called a false prophet and he tries to persuade people to his way of thinking with trickery and deceit. Many scholars have identified the Magi with a priestly class of Zoroastrianism, a religion that originated in Persia (modern day Iran) who paid very close attention to the stars. Regardless, they were definitely not kings as we think of ruling royalty, and not so much astronomers – involved in the scientific study of celestial objects – as they were astrologers, buying into a system of divination based on the premise that there is a relationship between astronomical phenomena and the events of the world. Because of their hasty departure, there is much about these magi that we do not know outside of the fact that they brought three gifts for the Holy Family and bowed to worship Jesus. What we do know is that they are central characters in a wonderful story that features kings and wise men – it’s just that the kings and wise men of this story are not THEM!!

Yes, there are kings involved in this story…two of them! One is Herod and one is Jesus. Herod exemplifies the sort of King that Jesus will eventually denounce later in Matthew’s Gospel. Herod is a tyrant who lords it over those he rules rather than serving them. He is not a ruler who shepherds God’s people, as God calls the earthly Kings to do. By contrast, the infant King Jesus is helpless and vulnerable, born to poor parents. He is a ruler whose power is hidden in humility. The two kings in this story – Herod and Jesus - are opposite ends of God’s presence in the world to tend and care for his own people.

And there are wise men in this story too! The wise men here are the chief priests and scribes who function as Herod’s key advisors. Trained in the scriptures, they possess academic knowledge that both Herod and the magi lack. But, what good does it do them? It does not lead them to the messiah, not here at least. Later it will lead them to plot to put him to death, and in a strange twist of events, they will use Herod to accomplish this, whereas here Herod is trying to use them to put the rival newborn king to death! But these wise men are admired by the religious community as ones who are in authority over the matters of the Jewish faith, and they are respected by all, including one of the kings in the story, Herod.

So, if the Magi are neither kings nor wise men, what are they? In Matthew's narrative, kings are normally contrasted with servants – “whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave” - and wise men are contrasted with infants – “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants”. The magi in Matthew 2 are depicted as persons who do as they are instructed, who seek no honor for themselves, but gladly humble themselves, kneeling before a woman and a child. Clearly, they fit the image of servants better than that of kings; of the childlike personality rather than a traditionally trained person of wisdom. Surprisingly, they also embody perfectly the two traits that are ascribed to infants in Matthew's story. They are persons to whom God reveals what is hidden, and from whom God derives worship or praise – “out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself”. If Jesus the literal infant king is contrasted here with Herod, the magi as metaphorical infants may be contrasted with Herod's advisors, the wise men of Israel.

The central message of this text, then, may be framed as an answer to the question, “whom does God favor?” Not kings or wise men, but the magi who embody qualities that this Gospel will continue to uncover as opposite to the traits of the royal and the wise.

The appearance of the Magi add a couple of important things to the conclusion of the story of Jesus’ birth. First of all, Jesus’ life begins as it is consistently lived out in all of his 30 years, and that is in the presence of those who are sort of bumbling along, trying to make sense out of life and giving thanks to God along the way. These magi are not rich by any means – their gifts were extravagant, but they were probably the products of intense sacrifice and devotion, being given to the one that they would kneel down and worship as their very own king. Being the opposite of Herod and his wise advisors, the magi surrender to the one who leads by way of stars and dreams, not intellect or personal gain.
Secondly, they are foreigners in every sense of the word. In all likelihood they looked, acted, spoke and even smelled differently than anyone that Mary or Joseph had ever met before! Their presence is a sign to all from God that this child’s birth and presence makes a difference to everyone on earth, including and especially those who are very different from us! Including and especially those who we don’t really care to be around! Those who make us uncomfortable or maybe even those who we were raised to believe are not our friends! Christian writer Anne Lamott says that, “You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Maybe hate is a very strong word for the attitude of Mary and Joseph toward the magi – maybe taken aback or distrusting of the motivation for their visit and gifts might be a better way to look at it. Nevertheless, the presence of these strangers following a bright star in the sky in order to bow in worship and give their offerings to this baby boy is a powerful witness of the length and breadth of the difference that God is making in the world through the birth of his son Jesus.

As we close out this Christmas season hearing of these strange visitors to the infant King Jesus, I cannot wonder in light of a new year who God will send to join us to worship Christ the King in the fellowship of our church family. It is good to pray to God for those who we have not yet met, that God will send into our midst – here at worship, as we reach out and serve at Faith Mission or other places, and even in our daily lives. My sense is that there are many people who hunger for the presence of God in their lives and have tried to find it through many and various channels. Some say that the magi represent those who come to our worship services who may be dressed differently and act differently than us. Some say they are those “spiritual but not religious” in our neighborhoods. Others that they are the ones whom God is calling us to love that we might have considered “enemies” before. Regardless of who you think the Magi were, we can be assured that in 2019 we will be met by modern day examples of their presence. I pray that our response is to welcome them, worship Jesus alongside of them, and offer our gifts along with theirs as we seek the presence of Jesus in our lives with all. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen!