by Daniel Harrell
For liturgical calendar watchers and church history enthusiasts, today ranks as the third most important Sunday of the church year, right after Easter and Pentecost. That’s right, Epiphany trumps even Christmas. It was one thing for Israel’s King to be born among Jewish shepherds and angels. Quite another to have him revealed as the King of the Gentiles too. Epiphany means revelation, and with the revelation of Jesus to the Magi, God’s plan to save his chosen people turns out to be a plan to save the whole world.
By the time we get to Matthew 2, Jesus is a toddler and sleeping in a bed. His family thankfully upgraded to a house, which may have had something to do with all those glorious angels. Anybody witnessing that spectacle surely scrambled to make more room available, if only to get on the Lord’s good side. The family still resides in Bethlehem, however, having yet to make the move back to Nazareth (which they’ll end up doing by way of Egypt to further secure Gentile credentials). Here they’re famously visited by a collection of exotic magicians from the east, described by tradition as three kings or wise men, easily the strangest dudes to show up in the gospels so far. Scholars conclude they were likely astrologers, who having checked their the skies, determine an important king has been born who was worth checking out. With the kind fervor currently reserved for Prince William and Kate’s scone in the oven, these astrologers trace a star toward Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city. They drive straight to the royal palace since that’s where you’d expect a king of the Jews to be born.
For the ancients, astrology was the best that science had to offer as far as the cosmos was concerned. It was a world where the earth sat at the center of the universe and stars and planets were thought to be alive. What did the Magi see up in the sky that night? An astral anomaly? A blazing comet? A bright supernova? An alignment of planets? A bird or a plane? Speculation runs rampant. But whatever they saw, I like how the Magi used the science of their day to pursue truth and how it brought them to Jesus. Searching for truth does that.
Scholars conclude that “from the east” probably meant the Magi hailed from Persia, Babylon or Arabia, known to us as Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, nations whose significance to peace on earth is as important then as now. What are these Arabs doing looking for a Jewish Messiah? Plenty of scholars remain suspicious about whether this epiphany even happened. Who can believe a bunch of Arabian astrologers chase a moving star to go looking for a Jewish kid they think to be divine? Then again, it’s not the sort of story you concoct as a gospel writer trying to get a new religion off the ground. For serious Old Testament readers this was not a surprise encounter. Isaiah the prophet saw it coming in chapter 60: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” This is where we get the idea that the Magi were kings. Isaiah goes on to foresee how “the wealth of nations shall come to you; a multitude of camels shall cover you…” (This is how camels get into Nativity scenes.) And finally, “they shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord,” which is how Isaiah 60 gets linked to the Magi.
Isaiah uses the imagery of light and darkness we’ve been exploring since last September. I’m obviously milking this light theme for all that its worth. Israel had walked in darkness for a long time, both literally in exile and spiritually in disobedience which led to their exile. God’s merciful glory now returns to Israel, shining like the sun overhead, not only giving light but causing Mt. Zion and Jerusalem itself, to glow with glory. In time, God’s glory reflecting off a place gave way to glory reflecting off people. As Jeff preached last Sunday, this reflection is what the New Testament meant by calling God’s people shining stars and the light of the world. We shine so to attract others to the light of the Lord. And thus: “Nations come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
Perhaps the Magi knew something of Isaiah, which would have given them corroborating reason to follow the light to Jerusalem. They get to the palace but don’t find a new king. There’s just the crazy old king: A maniacal monarch, King Herod was paranoid about his power to the point of murdering his own wife and sons out of fear that they threatened his throne. The Roman Emperor Augustus remarked how it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his kid. As Herod later approached his own death, he cruelly ordered a large group of prominent citizens be simultaneously executed as he breathed his last so that ample tears and grief would accompany his own demise. We all know the atrocity he commits against innocent children. News of a newborn King terrified Herod. He checked with his Jewish religious advisors and finds that the Magi’s calculations were six miles off. The prophet Micah had later foreseen Israel’s savior to be born in Bethlehem instead of Jerusalem. Putting on some fake piety, Herod sends the Magi to Bethlehem on a diabolical hunt: “Go and search diligently for the child. And when you find him, bring me word so that I can go and worship him, too.”
The irony is unavoidable: pagan astrologers travel the long distance to adore Israel’s Savior, but Israel’s ruler just wants him dead. And not only that, but Israel’s religious leaders, who know the prophecies inside and out and actually believe, fail to join the journey even though for them it was only a six mile trip. Why bother? What could a kooky bunch of Gentile astrologers know? Despite the popularity of daily horoscopes, Judaism debunked astrology as dangerous if not demonic.
It also didn’t work. The Magi missed it by six miles. However maybe that was due to human error. The Magi may have been wise men, but we all have our biases, even when it comes to divine revelation. If you’re looking for royalty, you look for it among glitter and splendor like you find in capital cities, not in Podunk backwater towns like Bethlehem. Who could have imagined a King being born to working class commoners engulfed by the kind of scandal that swamped Mary and Joseph? Jesus wasn’t Joseph’s baby and everybody knew it. That’s why they couldn’t find a place for Mary to give birth in Joseph’s hometown. People still seek Jesus in places you’d normally expect to find a king: amidst respectability and success, security and contentment. We presume the Lord to be present mostly when there’s money in the bank, the career’s intact, our relationships are enjoyable, the kids succeed, our bodies are fit and the weather is nice. And not that we shouldn’t. I even like seeing football players thank the Lord for scoring touchdowns, though I doubt God really cares about who wins (a comfort to Vikings fans this morning).
Now that I mention it, I’m not sure God cares so much about your bank balance either, even on this Stewardship Sunday. I’m not sure God cares so much about how far you’ve made it up the career ladder—or about your relational enjoyment, your kid’s success, good fitness or the five-day forecast—at least not if God’s track record is any indication. The fact is that for most Christians, even the faithful ones, money goes away, careers collapse, relationships break, children disappoint, our bodies get sick and the weather can kill you. Remember, the Magi gave Jesus myrrh for Christmas, a spice used for burying bodies. It was like putting embalming fluid under the tree with Jesus’ name on it, or wrapping up a sword for his mother to be buried with (for those who were here Christmas Eve). You get the sense these wise men knew how things would turn out. Jesus himself warns that following him requires a cross. Whether you take that literally or metaphorically, the point seems to be that coming to Jesus can be hazardous to your health.
This was certainly true for the Magi. Knowing the horror Herod wrought upon baby boys in Bethlehem, it’s not hard to shudder at what he had planned for the Magi had they met up with him again. God warned them in a dream to take the back roads home, and fortunately they were the sort who paid serious attention to dreams. Their lives had been changed. They returned to their own country, but they went back as different people. Though we never hear from them again, artists and poets over the centuries since have speculated plenty. TS Eliot mused over the wise men’s emotions in his poignant work, The Journey of the Magi. Listen to the last stanza,
… were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation…
Coming to Jesus can be hazardous to your health—whether you take that literally or metaphorically. New birth feels like death, hard and bitter, because being born again means death to the sinful life you’ve been living, and that can hurt. Yet as painful as new birth can be, the new life it brings gets described, and experienced, as both abundant and eternal, full of grace and joy. We read that the Magi were “overwhelmed by joy” upon coming to Jesus—and he was still just a toddler. They bow before him and pay homage though he’d yet to speak a word or do a miracle. “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and proclaim the praise of the LORD,” just like the prophet said.
Pagan astrologers travel the long distance to adore Israel’s Savior while Israel’s ruler just wants him dead. Though Israel’s religious leaders know the prophecies, they don’t even bother. The irony is unavoidable and intentional. As a baby Jesus already shatters human categories of religion and race and class and privilege. Outsiders are welcome inside. Before the story is over, the homeless and destitute, prostitutes, lepers, Roman centurions, condemned criminals and the IRS will all be welcomed inside too. But the welcome wasn’t merely an opening of doors and putting out a welcome mat hoping outsiders might drop by. The disturbing beauty of the gospel is how Jesus became an outsider himself: marginalized and outcast, scandalized and condemned.
I’ve mentioned how my old church a group of us served dinner to homeless folks on the Boston Common one night a week. We’d invite them to church too, but it was tough getting them to come inside. We quickly realized that if we wanted these friends in church, we’d have to take church outside. So we did. And it made a difference. When I was back in Boston last summer guest preaching, it was fun to see the back pew filled up with my homeless buddies. We speak of the Magi as outsiders coming in to Jesus. But it may be more accurate to say that Jesus got into them.
He said, “I have come as light into the world to save it, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” Among the many things we’ve learned about light in the Bible so far, the most important, I think, is light’s role as the Lord’s signature. It is the sign of his presence. For Jesus to call himself light in the world to call himself God in the world. If you can see that light, then with the Magi, you will be overwhelmed with joy. And joy inspires worship. With the Magi you bow before your king with gifts fit for a king. On this Stewardship Sunday, there are any number of other reasons I could offer for giving gifts to God: your cheerful participation in Christian community, your covenant obligation, simple obedience, supporting the work of the church in a needy world, showing gratitude, practicing generosity. But when it comes right down to it, you give to Jesus because Jesus is your Lord and your King and you’re happy to do it.
Sixteen hundred years ago, on another Epiphany Sunday, the church father Chromatius preached of the Magi who “fell to their knees immediately and adored the one born as Lord. They worshiped him with gifts though Jesus was merely a child. A boy he is, but it is God who is adored. How inexpressible is the mystery of his divine honor. The invisible and eternal nature did not hesitate to take on the weaknesses of flesh for our sake. … It is he who though a child was truly God and King eternal.”
And so we pay homage, with our treasures and with our lives. To partake of the bread and the cup is to stake our lives on God’s mercy. Jesus gets inside and causes a hard and bitter new birth that results in an abundant and joyful new life. Let us come and adore our King, by laying down our sins, by taking up his cross and by making his life our life—our money, our bodies, our work, our relationships and our families and our future.