Matthew 2:1-12 (non-lectionary)
January 5th, 2014
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be faithful and fruitful in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
After our heavy focus on stars this Advent and Christmas, you might have thought we’d be through with the star motif for a while, but not so, my friends! Because today come tripping into our gospel those magi, following that star, same as they do every year around this time.
Now, if you grew up singing the song about this story, you know that these three kings from Orient are…and if you’re really into Christmas lore, you even know that their names are Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.
There’s just one small problem: none of those facts are from the Bible. All we know from Matthew, the only one of the gospel writers to tell this story, is that an unspecified number of magi (not kings!) came to worship the Christ child, and anonymously donated gold, frankincense, and myrrh. All that other stuff we think we know about the magi, we actually made up about the magi, to make a better story.
I know. I felt a little cheated too when I found out. But hang in there with me, because when we really get into this story, it’s just as good, and better, than the one about three kings.
So, the first question to ask here is, what on earth are “magi”? Turns out, they were Zoroastrian astrologers—pagan equivalents of ancient near Eastern Miss Cleos. Their job was to tell fortunes, using stars, or perhaps casting bones, or even reading chicken livers.
And we don’t know how reputable a job this really was. I mean, these guys usually worked at court, but I’m not sure how often ancient rulers actually made decisions based on the word of their court astrologers, in the same way that most of you probably don’t allow your horoscope to dictate your daily plans. Think of these guys as weathermen: every news station needs one, but no one actually expects total accuracy.
Also, the other time this word, “Magi” is used in the NT, it occurs in Acts in reference to a magician—same root word, by the way—who tried to block the apostle Paul’s access to an important local politician. Paul hurls some choice insults at this guy, calling him a “son of the devil” and accusing him of “making crooked the straight paths of the Lord.” Suffice it to day, not everyone respected these people.
So picture this: some magi, maybe court-employed, maybe freelance, are cleaning up the mess from the most recent shipment of chicken livers one evening, when someone looks into night sky and says, “What the heck is that?” Some astrological event, maybe a nova or a planetary alignment, is shining brightly in the sky. And the magi pay attention to this because of a persistent legend that says when truly remarkable people are born, their birth is marked by the appearance of a star in the heavens—a star whose magnitude reflects the greatness of its person. So when a flaming bright star suddenly appears, these magi believe that someone truly marvelous has come along—a great king, surely, somewhere in the west, in the land of the Jews.
And this is such a once-in-a-lifetime big deal for these star-gazers that they drop everything, following the star westward, and they head straight for where you’d logically look for the king of the Jews: the capital of Judea: Jerusalem. And they head straight for the ruler of that region—Herod the Great. And they naively pose this question to the King who rules all the Jews: “So, where’s this king of the Jews whose birth you’re all surely celebrating?”
This was an incredibly dangerous question to ask Herod, who was a very cruel man, but the magi seem oblivious to this. They seem, in fact, blissfully unaware of a lot of things; the fact that it’s not such a great idea to ask the old king where the new king is to be found (!);the fact that Herod, who is supposed to rule the Jews on behalf of Rome, had lost their support through high taxes, espionage, and violence; the fact that they’ve just walked into a land where a violent new political movement called Zealotry is arising among the Jews, and news of a new King might be enough to catapult them into a full-blown uprising.
Herod is aware of the context, even if the magi are not. He heads straight to his panel of Jewish high priests and legal aides and asks, not about a King, but about the Messiah. In Jewish tradition, the Messiah, which means “anointed one,” is the person whom God elects to shepherd Israel. That person is anointed with oil, or chrism—the word where “Christ” comes from. It had been done that way ever since Samuel anointed Saul, Israel’s first king, and Herod knew that if such a person had been chosen, then the insurrection in Palestine would have reached a whole new level.
In view of all that, one of the most surprising things to me about this story is that Herod lets the magi go at all; if I were him, I wouldn’t like these foreigners traipsing through my fomenting streets with talk of a new king. Maybe he thinks that his panel is just blowing smoke with their talk about something kingly coming out of Bethlehem, Podunk backwater town that it was. Or maybe he just had enough faith in the power of Rome that he didn’t feel like he has to react yet to this news.
In any event, Herod points the magi towards Bethlehem, and they go and find the child and his mother. They fall down on their knees and worship him, and offer him gifts of kingly and Christly significance. They go home, having been shaken out of their oblivion by an angel in a dream and warned that they might, in fact, be in some danger from Herod.
The end. Or is it?!
(I’m so happy I finally get to use this GIF.)
We celebrate Epiphany today, a Greek-based word meaning “revelation,” and we read the story of the magi because the end of their story is the beginning of ours: the appearance of Christ to the magi is the first time the Jewish Messiah appears to the Gentiles. That means that this is the moment that God reveals God-with-us not just to the people who already know they’re God’s chosen, the Jews, but to all the rest of us. It’s the first time this God, who had always been known as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, now opens up to the entire world, to all people…even to ancient near Eastern Miss Cleos.
Let’s stay with that reality for a moment, because really? Choosing these guys as ambassadors of God’s amazing plan to save all people and not just the Jews? I mean, there’s a reason we transformed the story over time, until the Zoroastrian astrologers became three kings. Three actual kings might have lent a more dignified touch; y’know, the whole “kings bowing down before the king” motif that the psalm brings up. Three kings make a lot more sense than a bunch of star-gazers who smell faintly of dead chicken. It seems more right.
Instead, God very intentionally chooses that the people of the Epiphany would be readers of stars and chicken livers, people of questionable repute and respectability, the type of people who would later be accused of muddying the Lord’s pathway. Not only that, but God is so concerned that it should be exactly these kind of people who come and worship the infant Christ that God calls to them in language only they would understand—the shining of a star. And God guides them even through the means of a man like Herod. And God overwhelms them with joy when they saw the child lying in a humble place in Bethlehem, and gave them to know that this weak child, in this lowly place, worshiped by such inappropriate candidates for God’s favor, was their Savior, too.
I wonder how often we are like the magi? Chosen by God, but certainly not for our resume? And how often we build legends around our own worthiness like we did around the magi, telling ourselves and others that we’re more powerful, more dignified, more wise than we really are? People both in and outside of the church usually define Christians as “good people,” when the fact of the matter is that we’re really just people, with all the flaws and shortcomings that people come with. We’re not Christians because we’re good people; we’re Christians because God overwhelmed us with joy, and brought us to our knees before Christ, and leads us home along a new path through the Spirit.
Perhaps a good question to leave hanging in the air, in the wake of the story of the magi, is: “What’s your star?” How is God guiding you? Is it through a passion that’s led you to a new understanding about what God is doing in your life? Is it through an unfair boss, a Herod of a supervisor, who somehow still pointed you in a direction you needed to go? Is it through a humble place, a tiny backwater town or house or state of mind, where you thought nothing special would ever happen, until you were overwhelmed with joy in an unexpected encounter with God?
Whatever your star, however you stumble toward Christ, hear the good news of the magi: God so loves you that God will go to every length to reveal Godself to you. This is the wonder of the Epiphany, and the wonder of the star of the magi.
Thanks be to God. Amen.