So often have we heard the Christmastime story about the coming of the Wise Men – and sung the time-honored carols about their intrepid following of a yonder star – that some of us probably can quote by heart the details of their bold voyage across field and fountain, moor and mountain.
But what we think we know and remember about these Wise Men bearings gifts and traversing afar doesn’t entirely jibe with Matthew’s Gospel telling of the miraculous event.
Even though their visit with the Christ Child is traditionally shared as part of the Christmas story, biblical scholars believe that these wise guys from the east – probably astrologers, not kings, coming from a home in what today is the country of Iran – may not have dropped by to see Jesus until as much as two years after his birth. So, the story of their arduous journey and surprise visit doesn’t have to be associated solely with Christmas.
Sure, the Wise Men – probably more than just the three we sing about – bring to Jesus valuable gifts that symbolize the uniquely wonderful significance of his birth. Gold symbolizes that Jesus was, and still is, the King of Kings. Frankincense, a type of incense often burned on altars in worship, emphasizes the divinity of Jesus as God in human flesh. And myrrh, an oil often used in embalming, points to his death of the Cross. You simply cannot ignore the importance and meaning behind these gifts as proclamations of Jesus’s holy birth.
Yet, when you start peeling back the layers of this treasured story that seemingly wraps up everything you need to know about Jesus’s birth, you discover some groundbreaking, revolutionary truths that serve well your living long after you un-deck the halls, pack away the holiday trappings, and settle in for a long winter’s nap.
Here in Matthew 2, our Scripture lesson for this morning, the evangelist spins not a Christmas yarn but instead shares a story for all seasons. So, listen with all your senses for the Word of the Lord to you this day.
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. (Matthew 2:1-12)
Every Christmas pageant that you ever enacted or attended probably ended in precisely same way.
Three small children wearing fake beards and gold crowns, and bearing shiny, aluminum-foil-covered boxes, step out on stage to signal the star-struck arrival of the Wise Men.
That, of course, triggers lots and lots picture-taking by lots and lots of proud parents and grandparents eager to capture the moment when the holiday cast of Bethlehem’s characters fills the stage from left to right to take their bows.
And basking in the pageant’s heartwarming afterglow, the giddy-with-excitement audience – now fully enraptured by the pageantry of “the reason for the season” – declares that this really and truly is “the cutest and best Christmas ever.”
But when the Wise Men show up in Matthew’s Gospel, their arrival is anything but cute.
Outraged tyrants, murder plots, and last-minute escapes compose a scene that’s actually quite dark and foreboding.
Matthew wants nothing to do with angels and heavenly hosts, shepherds and sheep, and Bethlehem hotels booked solid. Matthew doesn’t even offer up a sweet, little manger surrounded by lowing cattle. Those all belong to Luke, who gospels a much kinder, gentler telling of the Christmas story.
But thanks to Matthew, the Wise Men stand in the spotlight of Epiphany – somehow tacked onto the end of Christmas and its already-epic story like a post script or bonus encore.
The Wise Men likely are astrologers who observe the night sky looking for significance and meaning. They search for signs and omens in the heavens and interpret what they see in the moon, the planets, and the stars. They seek something of the divine and otherworldly in the movements and activities of constellations and galaxies like new-agey spiritualists or fortune-telling mediums.
The Bible doesn’t speak well of those who practice such sorcery and hocus-pocus, so we now know the Wise Men as upstanding kings, a later interpretation of the story that provides some legitimizing cover for the unseemliness of their real day jobs.
Career choices notwithstanding, the movement of a star pulls the Wise Men toward Jerusalem – the location of Temple, the beating heart of Israel’s ancient faith and worship. They arrive at the palace of Herod the Great, king of Palestine, a political appointee of the Roman Empire who murders his rivals to claw his way to the top and along the way earning himself a well-deserved reputation for ruthless cunning.
These supposedly wise men arrive at Herod’s house of horrors rather clueless. “Where is the child born king of the Jews?” they ask quizzically. “We’ve been watching the sky, and we’ve been following the star, and we’ve come to pay our respects.”
But they have absolutely no idea where to go or which way to turn. The wondrous star brings them this far, but something’s missing, and they can’t quite figure out what.
At this point, Herod freaks out – as do members of his unruly court and the other power-brokers of the day.
The birth of this new King scares the bejeebers out of them all, because Jesus threatens to loose their bloody stranglehold on power and control. Herod ends up sending the Wise Men to Bethlehem to get the location of the baby, so he, too, supposedly, can pay his own respects. But it’s all a trick. Herod plans to kill the Wise Men and do away with this new, upstart king once and for all.
When the Wise Men set out again, the star reappears. They again follow, and it lights their way. The star, still burning brightly, finally stops in the sky over the place where Jesus lay. Overwhelmed with joy, the Wise Men walk through the front door of the house and spy the child in the arms of his mother, Mary. The awestruck men – now face-to-face with the divine – kneel in worship, open their treasure chests, and offer the now-famous gifts quite fitting for the coronation of a king.
And here’s my favorite part: An angel comes to the Wise Men in a dream and warns them of Herod’s gory plans, and they escape, returning to their country by another road, heading for home by a different way.
The star draws them, and the story sends them.
The Wise Men find the source of their seeking – the One who draws them, the One who calls them. They become part of this story and go home another way – somehow different, someway changed.
Fast forward 2,000-or-so years, and here we are today.
Somehow gathered in worship around the same scene.
Somehow, the same Scripture has been read, and the same ancient promises have been made.
Somehow, here we are again following the star, hoping and maybe finding the overwhelming joy of a up-close-and-personal encounter with God – the kind that, like the Wise Men, sends us down a different way, following a different path, somehow changed into different people.
So, please listen carefully to God’s ancient promises.
Come, kneel humbly before the holy One who embodies the fulfillment of God’s promises.
And find this congregation as a place to share your gifts – as well as your joys and your hurts.
Those who, like the Wise Men, dare to go looking for God find their lives changed after meeting up with Jesus. Each of us goes back “another way” – or surely ought to, anyway – after encountering the game-changing, life-saving power of Jesus Christ! For indeed he is Emmanuel – God with us, God for us, God’s living Word to us.
Faith communities and the spiritually changed people who compose them are at their best when they seek the place where Mary cradles Jesus in her arms.
We are at our best when the old promises are spoken, heard, then lived out in gratitude. We are at our best when friends, neighbors, and strangers are able to come face to face with the living God through the gifting of our caring words and healing deeds, through the generous sharing of our time, talent, and treasure. We are at our best when we leave this sacred ground and carry the light of hope and assurance into the darkness of a broken and fearful world.
Here’s a glimpse of what that looked like at First Presbyterian Church over the holidays:
As we begin a new year, let the star draw you in, and let the story send you out.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward all. Amen.
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Epiphany Sunday, January 2, 2021. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by M. Eugene Boring, Mike Ruffin, and Ryan Slifka inform the message.