Matthew 2:1-12 CEB
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
Epiphany Sunday, the last day of the Christmas season, feels like it came very quickly this year! Late November and early December not only mark the beginning of Advent, but it begins the start of the Christmas movie season for the Grossman family as well as many others. I can say that we successfully made it through the film gambit, catching all the classics like It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, as well as many of the Rankin and Bass productions like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. What would Christmas be without these holiday specials? Hopefully, I am not alone in watching these! Can I see a show of hands for any other holiday film fans out there? Good to know, I am not alone!
Now, one of my favorites is The Little Drummer Boy. This has our drumming protagonist, Aaron, leading around a lamb, a donkey, and a camel through a series of misadventures until he runs into the three kings. They are on a journey to see baby Jesus in a manager, following the star. However, Aaron cannot see the star, as his dislike for all people, drawn from a past family tragedy blinds him. Eventually, everyone ends up at the stable where Jesus has been born, and with nothing else to his name, Aaron gives Jesus a gift of his drumming as his anger and hatred melt away. Now, while watching the adventures of Aaron and his motley crew of animals against the backdrop of the birth of Christ, I have been struck time and time again by Aaron’s inability to see the star. I mean, it’s absolutely huge! The star is like a second sun in the night sky! However, The Little Drummer Boy echos scripture here, as not everyone could see the star. The wisemen, or Magi, from our scriptures could see and follow the star, but others like Herod could not see it in their midst. Why could some see it but others could not, and who were these Magi that they could?
Scripture gives us only basic answers on what exactly these Magi were looking for or where they came from. They were looking for the King of the Jews and that they came from the east, and that is about it. Now, scholars have argued about their origins, whether it could be Damascus, Persia, or even further east than that. The word we translate as wisemen, comes from the Greek magoi, which likely means they were Persian Zoroastrian priests who were looking to the stars, searching for signs of a coming king. Why they matter is because not only do the heavens herald this world changing savior, but his coming is so important that there are even gentiles who are in search of and recognize the Messiah. For us today, it does not matter so much where they came from, rather it matters where they are going. These Magi journeyed from far away, uncertain of their final destination or who this king would be when they got here. They could have found a prince in a palace in a big city like Jerusalem, and in fact, this is where they go first, only to surprise Herod with this news. Instead, they find this king in a simple home, in a small town, in the middle of a backwater Roman province.
The Magi find Mary and Jesus, not in a stable, but in a house in Bethlehem, as we are told they “entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother.” Many retellings of Christ’s birth show the wisemen arriving while everyone is in the stable and while this paints a pretty picture, this probably did not happen. The truth is that the wisemen show up at Mary and Joseph’s house in Bethlehem two or three years after the birth of Jesus. Imagine poor Mary having a bunch of strange people, who I imagine looking like the cross between an astronomer and astrologer, showing up at her door while she is trying to care for an active baby or toddler! Not only do they show up at her door, they bow down to her small son. While divine, Jesus is still a small child here, and I doubt divinity kept him clean and calm! Jesus is very small and very human here, yet the Magi still bowed to him and gave him gifts. Here we see the divine wrapped up in our humanity, yet still recognizable, inspiring response.
These wisemen respond by giving Jesus three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Now in exploring what these gifts mean, gold is probably the most obvious of the three. Traditionally, it represents royalty. For us, the more obvious connection would be wealth. The latter two, frankincense and myrrh, pose more difficulties for us modern audiences. Frankincense, for instance, what is it? It is resin. Myrrh is also a resin. Both were pricey commodities back in Jesus’ day. Not only were they fragrant, they were considered medicinal as well. Both resins were said to treat various ailments. They were also used as incense. When burned, such as in the temple in Jerusalem, they were used for worship and blessing. The wisemen brought Jesus resources, medicine, and blessings. It would be like them showing up today with a briefcase full of money, a lifetime health insurance policy, and providing a personal prayer team. They did not bring these gifts in response to a need, for remember, they expected to find a king in a palace where royalty might have these already. Rather, their response is to who Jesus is, not their assessment of his situation. Wow! All this from a group of travelers that had only a general idea about what or where or who they would find on the end of their journey!
This star leads them onward, softly shining in the night sky, but a bright and burning beacon to those looking for it! There it is folks! The wisemen saw the star because they were looking for it! This star, like the grace of God, goes out before all of us to lead us to the places where we can encounter Christ. It is not hidden to those looking for it, but it remained obscured to those whose hearts and minds were clouded by fears. Herod and all of Jerusalem were afraid, apparently unaware of this heavenly sign and what it meant for all of them. Why, though? Perhaps, they fear what is outside of their control, something happening outside the center of power in a throne room and in the city of Jerusalem. They suddenly became aware that God was doing things just around the corner and just out of sight!
The Magi and Herod and Jerusalem are confronted by the presence and work of God around them. Here is God, not found where expected, while moving and working in ways that are beyond anyone’s control. How do we respond to this star, moving ahead and pointing the way to the divine presence at work among us? Are we even looking for it, or do we stay ignorant of it? Do we respond like Herod and others with fear and persecution, or do we respond like the Magi?
By the way, is anyone else fascinated by this moving star? It is hard to see, unless you are looking for it, but it apparently also moves! In fact, Matthew twice states that it stops, so it must have been moving to do some stopping. Now of course, this movement could just be like how the night sky moves as we on Earth spin and orbit on our celestial journey. However, I want to view this another way, what if this star is the spirit of God? I mean the divine pops up as a dove, some burning shrubbery, and a wrestler in scripture, so a star doesn’t seem so strange! This star is moving around us and ahead of us, preparing the way for us. As we move and sometimes stumble toward the divine, the divine stops to wait and stay with us, pointing again to its presence in our lives, as we might expect the spirit of the living God to do. What about us? Are we looking for this heavenly guide? Do we let ourselves see it, or do we turn away because we are afraid and anxious about where it might lead us? Furthermore, are we willing to follow and respond at the end?
Once again, these Magi did not go next door or to the next town over! They may have traveled hundreds of miles in the days before cars and GPS, risking safety and comfort to follow. If we accept that God continues to be amongst us, so too should we accept that Christ may continue to be found in our midst. He could be another child in a crib in our neighbor’s house, he might be found huddled in the cold here in our town, and he could even be found in the pew next to us. When we find Christ, how will we respond? Will we pay homage? Will we care for this Christ child? Make no mistake, Jesus is there. You do not even have to take my word for it, for later in gospel of Matthew, Jesus explains:
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
In caring for others, we care for him. Through Christ, we are all children of God. When we find Christ in another, are we prepared to give of our resources, provide for their well-being, and bless them?
In so many ways, I see Community Federated Church doing this already. During the season of Advent, we gathered donations of coats and hats and gloves for children without. This congregation’s food bank provided food, half turkeys, and warm greetings to those in need this holiday season. We even collected offerings to meet the needs of those affected by recent natural disasters. This congregation did that. In our small groups and prayer chains, our missions and ministries, Community Federated recognizes in many ways where the star stops in our congregation and our community. I see us paying homage, responding to those children of God in our midst. By blessing others, we ourselves find blessing. While the star in our story may have stopped once many millennia ago, the stars in our own lives are still on the move. God is ever at work in our midst and in the world around us. Let us never stop searching for the living God in our own lives, in our communities, and in our world.
To come full circle, so many of our Christmas movies end with messages that the Christmas spirit should live within us all the year round, and today let us extend that to the lesson of the Magi, those wisemen of the east. Let us never stop looking, let us never stop following, and let us never stop responding when we find the Christ child amongst us still. While some will tremble in fear at the thought of this divine power working beyond our control, let us be filled with joy, knowing that God is ever ahead of us, preparing the way. The star is ahead of us, will we follow to find where it stops? Will we respond with lavish blessing and endless love to those it stops over? Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman