The visit of the Wise Men or Magi to Jesus is marked by the celebration of Epiphany. It is a season of light, of realization and expectation. While the story of the Wise Men is often one of grandeur and wonder there is another story found embedded within Matthew’s gospel.
This morning we look at the story of the Wise Men from two very different perspectives. Both inform our understanding of God and the world that Jesus was born into.
Text: Matthew 2: 1-12
Two Sermons on the Magi
This morning you are in for a treat! It is two-for-one Sunday here at St. Andrew’s. Today you will receive two sermons for the price of one offering. If you aren’t comfortable with that, or if you are thinking that this sounds too good to be true then don’t worry. We can take up a second offering.
All joking aside, there are two sermons today. You see today is Epiphany Sunday. A Sunday when we celebrate the Wise Men who followed the Star, they arrived from the East and they paid homage to Jesus. They offered him the gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.
The first sermon is the one you are familiar with. It is the story we hear every Christmas. Of the birth of Jesus, of shepherds, of angels and of wise men. All who visit the infant Jesus that night in the manger. Many a Christmas Pageant demonstrates this very thing. Though the shepherds and angels never appear in Matthew’s gospel and the Wise Men never make an appearance in Luke’s.
On Christmas Eve churches throughout time have blended these stories together to tell the tale of Jesus’ birth. It is a wonderful celebration. When the Wise Men arrive they present their gifts to baby Jesus. Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.
In a treatise attributed to the Venerable Bede, from the 7th century, “the magi are first named: ‘Melchior’ was described as an old man with white hair and a long beard, ‘Gaspar’ as young and beardless and ruddy complexioned and ‘Balthasar’ as black-skinned and heavily bearded. The gifts of the magi are also interpreted: gold represented an appropriate gift due a king, frankincense symbolized an oblation worthy of divinity and myrrh testified to the Son of Man who was to die.”
Now we recognize that these constructs don’t hold up to academic scrutiny, but this is what tradition tells us about the Wise Men. Certainly the symbolism of the gifts endures and informs the story of Jesus.
Epiphany is the season of light. When we celebrate God’s light to the entire world. That the Wise Men came is further evidence that God was doing something new with the birth of Jesus. God was declaring that salvation was available to all people. These Wise Men from the East were the first indication that God’s intention was to welcome everyone into the kingdom.
There is something magical about the Wise Men. There is a hint of mystery and the exotic, that these three strangers would come and kneel before the king, Jesus Christ. Their gift giving inspires our own gift giving. The hymn ‘We Three Kings’ which we are going to sing shortly inspires this fantastical image of the Wise Men. It is a wonderful image to hold and a great reminder of how Jesus really did come to save all people.
This is the story of the Wise Men or the Magi that we enjoy. It is easy to hear, understandable and embodies us with an increased sense of wonder about the nativity. This is also where the first sermon ends.
If you enjoy the pastoral image of these three Wise Men coming and visiting with Jesus and you don’t want to upset that image you may want to leave. As I read this story from Matthew’s gospel and its surrounding context I wonder if we have sanitized the story a little bit too much.
The story of the Wise Men is embedded within the political and religious intrigue of its time. There is an element of fear and opposition to the news of Jesus’ birth. Not only was Herod frightened of this news, but so was all of Jerusalem. Herod calls together all the chief priests and scribes and asks about this child. Herod called the Wise Men into his confidence to report back on Jesus’ whereabouts. Though Herod was not successful in removing the threat of Jesus that day, we know that later the chief priests and those in power would once again plot to kill Jesus only they would be successful the second time.
We stopped our reading today after the Wise Men are warned not to return to Herod, but to return by another path. What this leaves out is the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. In today’s terms we would say that Jesus was a refugee who fled his home because of political persecution. It also leaves out Herod’s actions to root out and kill this baby who he felt threatened by.
Matthew was keenly away of the political and religious realities of his time. What we see with this second reading is that we quickly move away from the three Wise Men, their gifts and the moments of adoration to a reality that is grounded in fear, political intrigue and violence. And if we are honest we recognize that the world has not changed a lot since the time of King Herod, when wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.
Today, wise men and wise women from the East, West, North and South still seek answers. Rulers of nations fear having their power taken from them. Individuals attack that which they do not understand. We are not so different from the shepherds, inn keeper, wise men, rulers, or priests who lived when Jesus was born.
The world still witnesses fear and hatred on a daily basis. But we are left with questions. Do we respond to fear they that Herod and all of Jerusalem did? How do we respond to the fear that is present in our own lives? Is the answer increased security and more guns? Do we need to put more into our retirement accounts and less into our charitable giving’s? Do we close ourselves off from learning about others because they are different?
This is the adult version of the Wise Men. It does not focus on gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It moves quickly from moments of adoration and wonder into a darker, murkier world full of intrigue, deception and violence. It is a sobering account of an event which occurs in the days after Jesus was born.
If you find it upsetting, if it shatters your understanding of this even it is only because we recognize the truth of the reality that Jesus was born into. Yet, embedded within this reality is a profound truth. That this is the world God came into, a world dominated by fear, ruled by politics and easily persuaded to violence. God came bringing love into a harsh reality. God became vulnerable and lived with us, because we needed to experience what it felt like to be loved in such a way and we still do.
When you are confronted by fear, when you witness the face of hatred and when the darkness seeks to consume you. Remember that God entered a dark world. God did so be being the light. A light for all people, a light which reveals an alternate way to live. We only need to courage to live in the light of God’s love.
The Wise Men went home by another road because after meeting Jesus Christ and witnessing the light of the world they were not the same. They went home different, changed. The old road that had brought them to Bethlehem, to the foot of Jesus’ cradle was no longer sufficient. So may it be for us.
Let the story of the Wise Men be a reminder that yes we still do live in dark times. But let their example of gift-giving serve as a demonstration for how we should give. Let the light they witnessed be a reminder that the gospel is for all people. Allow the road they took home, to be the road which you follow as changed people living in the light of Jesus Christ. Amen.