A little late, but here is the sermon I preached this past Sunday, as our congregation celebrated Epiphany (the Magi visiting the baby Jesus). Oftentimes we read the story of the Magi without thinking twice about it, because we’ve heard it so often. We do that a lot with familiar stories in the Bible. But what would it mean to reinterpret this story – to look deeper at it? The text, of course, is the story of the Magi – Matthew 2:1-12, and the sermon that follows deals with these very questions.
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.
So, I just had my 3rd meeting with the North Carolina Disciples Commission on Ministry, as I continue to pursue ordination in this denomination, and one of the things I mentioned in that meeting was that preaching, as much as it is bringing a good word to the congregation, to me also involves teaching. And, as all you good teachers out there know, teaching involves pop quizzes. So here we go: by a show of hands, how many kings visited the baby Jesus? A) None B) One C) Three, or D) We don’t know. If you answered A, congratulations! You read your Scripture carefully. Contrary to popular belief, those who went to visit Jesus in our story this morning were not kings. They were magi, which is a Greek word meaning astrologer or magician, but most likely referred to a certain Babylonian priestly caste from Persia (especially given the description of their location as “from the East”). So, if you got it wrong, don’t worry – you have a chance to redeem yourself! I’ll rephrase the question: How many magi visited the baby Jesus? A) Two B) Three C) Twelve, or D) We don’t know. Yep! The answer is D – if you have your Bible or a bulletin look back at the text; nowhere does it mention the number of magi that went to visit the baby Jesus. Also important to note is that, while the English text translates magi as “wise men”, it is possible that women may have been numbered among them. The Greek language is such that any group, when it contains at least one masculine member, is labeled with a masculine noun and pronouns. So, a group of all women would be labeled with a plural feminine word; a group of all men masculine; and a group of 99 women and one man would also be masculine. So, since magi is a masculine plural noun, and since the number of magi is not specified in our text (but their place of origin is), the only thing we can assume about these folks is that they were an unspecified number of Persian astrologers, at least one of whom was male. Neat, huh?
It may seem nitpicky, but asking these kinds of questions of the text is important. It helps us to understand why someone else might read the Bible differently than we do, and to not get angry at them for believing something different as a result. It can also help us to have new and meaningful encounters with God through Scripture. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – there is no one right way to read the Bible. There is no one magical interpretation that is right for everybody. There may be wrong ways to read it, sure, but that doesn’t mean that just because someone else has a different reading, it’s wrong. The Bible is a living document. It reads differently from person to person; and most people find that it reads differently at different stages of life, and even in different situations. The story of the Magi presenting gifts to the baby Jesus – the story that we celebrate on this day, Epiphany Sunday – is no different. It seems like such a simple story, powerful though it is, and by now we’ve heard it so many times that it all just kind of blurs together with the rest of the Christmas story. You have the stable and the animals and Mary and Joseph kneeling in front of the manger and the newborn baby Jesus (often glowing with radiant light) laying there, and the shepherds and their sheep standing by, and the three kings kneeling down in front of the manger, presenting their gifts, and, of course, the star shining above the stable, and the multitudes of angels hanging loftily in the sky singing glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men (and, we should add to the classic, albeit somewhat outdated Charlie Brown Christmas presentation of the nativity story, women). Every year it is repeated in our nativity plays, in our crèches, in the story that gets told over and over, so that you’re probably asking why, 16 days after Christmas, are we just now talking about the Magi?
Well, as you may know, the Christmas story is not told only once in the Bible. Both Luke and Matthew actually have their own version of the birth of Jesus, and each one is unique. They actually even have a few contradictions – for example, in Matthew’s story, Joseph lives in Bethlehem, and Jesus is born in his and Mary’s house. After they flee to Egypt, they decide not to return to Bethlehem for fear of the king (Herod’s successor), and instead settle in Nazareth. In Luke, Joseph lives in Nazareth, but a census forces him and Mary to Bethlehem, where Jesus is born in a stable. Luke has shepherds, Matthew has magi. Luke has the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and the birth of John the Baptist, Matthew has the story of Herod’s tragic massacre. Both tell a nativity story that is important and meaningful in its own right, each communicating something important about Jesus and the way that human beings are supposed to relate to him. We already heard about the hope and joy experienced by the shepherds at the sight of Jesus, and how that joy inspired them to go out into the surrounding towns and countryside and spread the good news of Jesus’ birth. But the story of the Magi offers a different picture of how we might react to the newborn Jesus – one that, when taken in conjunction with the story of the shepherds, gives us a more complete blueprint on how to live our lives in response to Christ’s arrival. The Church has traditionally celebrated this story on January 6th – the 12th day after Christmas; the day you get an obscene amount of gifts, most of them duplicates, according to the song – and since that day falls on a Wednesday this year, we are celebrating it in worship today. Accordingly, I think it is fitting that we come to fully understand just what we are celebrating.
The Magi, as I’ve already said, are kind of like priests/astrologers/scientists from Persia. We don’t get much information from the text, and the word magi can have many connotations in the Greek, so that’s about as specific as we can be. I mean, to be honest, we don’t really know much about them. We don’t know exactly where they come from, or what exactly was their profession and social standing. But for our purposes, it is important to know that they are somewhat knowledgeable, have enough social status and wealth that they can afford to travel long distances at a moment’s notice, and they are able to interpret the night sky. And when they notice that star in the sky, when they figure out what it means, the very first thing that they do is drop everything and head straight for Jerusalem. Isn’t that curious? I mean, why would someone do that? What’s more, they seem to be the only people who, having noticed the star, decide to travel thousands of miles to find what lies beneath. And it’s not like they were already going to Jerusalem, and just decided to make a detour to Bethlehem to see what this star business is about. They are single-minded in their task – as soon as they know that Jesus is here, they go looking for him. And not so they can make some special request of the newborn King, or so they can gain his favor. They have simply come to pay him homage – and the Greek word, proskuneo, means worship; literally, it means to prostrate oneself, to bow down. That’s what they were there for. Think about that. Isn’t that crazy? When they learned that Jesus had come into the world these people, who weren’t even Jewish, dropped everything and traveled thousands of miles just so they could kneel before him.
And I wonder, how often have we done that? How often do we just drop what we are doing and go looking for Jesus? How many times have we sensed God’s presence in our lives and ignored it, or resisted Jesus’ call to us to travel – be it physical, emotional, or mental distance – however far is necessary to get to him? I would contend that part of the wisdom of the Magi is in their spontaneity. They’re not reckless – they do not simply go wherever and do whatever they wish whenever they feel like it. But they are ready to go when they are called. They are able to deviate from their normal routine when God breaks into the world. This ability to recognize and prioritize that which is important, to sift the holy out of the mundane – this is the beginning of wisdom.
But the Magi do more than just worship Jesus. After their brief exchange with Herod, they go to Bethlehem to find the baby in his home with his mother, Mary, and they kneel down and worship him just like they said they would. And then, they do something else. They present to him an offering. And here’s the part that I would really like for us to reinterpret today. Because, traditionally, we think of these folks as being three very wealthy men, and the gifts they give, while significant for Jesus’ family, are just a drop in the hat for them. They are proportionate to what any normal person would give. Myself, just starting out – I usually spend maybe $20-$30 on gifts for family, maybe a little less on friends. For someone a little closer to me or for a special occasion I might splurge a little more – say, $100-$200 – but it’s still not gonna break the bank. It’s a gift, it’s not supposed to be huge or incredibly expensive; it’s more a token than anything else – and even if we put a lot of thought into the gift, and the person we’re giving it to really likes it, isn’t it the thought that really counts more than the cost of the gift? Likewise, when we read this story, I think we usually see the gifts the wise folks bring as being symbols of their commitment to Jesus, maybe even just the customary formality of greeting a new king.
But, I think it changes the meaning of the story, and invites us into a new understanding of our relationship with Christ, if we imagine a slightly different scenario. We know that the Magi aren’t kings. They may not even be the wealthiest of persons – they have enough to make the trip to Jerusalem and back, but otherwise we don’t know much about their financial situation. They have already offered themselves to Jesus; they have already submitted to him on bended knee. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to suppose that the gifts they brought indeed constituted everything they had. That, minus what they would need for their travels, they sold everything they owned just so they could get the best gifts they could for the newborn Jesus. And in this scenario, the Magi are no longer just foreign dignitaries sent to pay homage to a new king. They are the first to give all that they are and all that they have wholly and completely to Christ. In some ways, you might say that they did what the rich young ruler later in Matthew’s gospel could not – they sold all that they had and gave the proceeds away. And it is only after they have given everything to Christ that they are ready to return home. Their encounter with the infant Jesus ends with the complete and total surrender of themselves to him!
This is the second piece of wisdom that the Magi display – once they have discovered that which is most important, that which is most holy, they are prepared to give everything to it. Anything they have in excess of what they need to survive the journey home is freely given, quite literally, to God, without any expectation of reward. I wonder how often we do this in our lives. As I’ve said before, it can be quite easy to rationalize hanging on to our “stuff”. I myself, who never claimed to be wise, by the way, still do this a good deal. I’m not ready to go “all in” for Jesus because I’m used to a certain lifestyle, and I like my stuff. That doesn’t mean I don’t give, but I don’t think I can honestly say that I give all of my excess away to God. True wisdom lies in the realization that the more “stuff” we own, the more that “stuff” owns us, and the ability to free ourselves from that ownership by giving all of our excess to God and God’s work in the world. If you’re wondering what that excess is, I would encourage you to go home and do this: make a list of all the stuff you need to survive. Everything you need. Here’s mine:
Now, you don’t have to do this right away, but I think it might be a good spiritual practice to pick a day (or, if you’re feeling ambitious, a week) and try to use only those things that are on your list. Test your attachment to your excess. I think that the more we are able to let go of that excess – the more we give and the less we take – the wiser we become. Because isn’t it the very nature of foolishness to invest in that which is unimportant and, ultimately, insignificant?
There’s one more thing the Magi do that I think is worth noting. Remember the part we skipped over, where they agree to tell Herod where the baby Jesus is after they find him? Well, here is where they should make good on their promise. But, much to our relief, they are warned in a dream about the murderous Herod, and so decide to go a different way in order to get home. Now, Matthew has used the wise folks’ interaction with Herod to explain why they follow a different road on their return journey, but I think he intends for us to also see a deeper, more theological reason for their alternative route. You see, the Magi can’t go on the same way they have been – not anymore. After their encounter with Jesus, they have been so changed that even to return home requires traversing a different path.
This is what it means to lead a life immersed in Christ. It is to recognize when Jesus is present, and to drop everything and attend to the moment. It is to give all that we are and all that we have to a God who is truly worth it. And when I say “give to God”, I don’t necessarily mean give to the Church, and of course it’s not really possible today to physically give gifts to Jesus the way the Magi did all those years ago. What I mean is that we are to invest in God’s work in the world. We are to give generously to “the least of these”, in whose faces we recognize the very face of Christ. We are to support with our time and with our resources God’s reconciling ministry in this world. In short, we are to spend our excesses not on ourselves but on anything and everything that helps to build God’s Kindom here on earth. This is the lesson that the Magi can teach us: attend to God’s work in the world. Prioritize it. Revere it. Give all that you are and all that you have to it. And in the end, you will find yourself walking on a different path, on a return journey to a new home, and you will be all the wiser for it. Amen.