The following is a sermon I preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church on January 3, 2021 on the Gospel passage in Matthew 2:1-12.
Have you ever gone somewhere and you just didn’t fit in? Or have you ever been to a place where you didn’t feel welcome? Uneasy stares may have followed you until you walked out the door.
One year, Julie and I had a great idea for Valentine’s day. Everyone goes out for a dinner date, but who goes out for a breakfast date? Just us, we thought. We could beat the crowds and save on babysitting. So, we dropped the kids off at school and set off for a local restaurant. We didn’t want to go to the same old diner. We wanted a restaurant, and we found one that had great reviews for breakfast. We’d never been there before, but how could so many positive reviews lead us astray?
We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
The first thing I saw upon entering was the hazy cloud of smoke rising from the many, many cigarettes. I’m allergic to smoke, and so that was an immediate deal breaker. Yet, we next saw that this “restaurant” was actually more of a cafeteria. And it was packed. Even worse, every eye seemed to turn right at us as we walked in.
We didn’t say a word to each other or even the hostess. We turned around abruptly and then had a very, very enjoyable Valentine’s Day breakfast at our usual diner with thankful hearts.
Thinking of the dramatic irony in my own story where I didn’t know what I was walking into at the local restaurant, I wonder if we see the 3 Magi in a similar light in today’s Gospel reading. Did they even imagine what they were getting themselves into when they set off on their journey? Here are 3 kindly, generous, wise astrologers who naively entered a place where they don’t belong. They had walked into the court of a crazy, violent King and delivered the worst possible news to him—he had competition.
While the Magi weren’t sure where to find the newborn king of the Jews, perhaps we miss some major insights if we don’t see them in all of their complexity and intrigue. By looking at the details of this story a little closer, we may get a better handle on what God was doing and what God may be saying to us today.
Let’s begin our closer examination with the low hanging fruit:
Point one: Everybody, including the Magi, Knew Herod Was Bad.
You didn’t have to be a wise man (or woman) to know that King Herod the great was bad news. After conspiring with Rome to overthrow the unpopular Jewish Hasmonean line of kings to take his place as ruler of Israel and neighboring territories, Herod suffered from persistent paranoia, imposter syndrome, and a taste for drowning opponents in his massive swimming pool at his Jericho palace. Herod’s paranoia drove him to construct a mand-made mountain south of Jerusalem called Herodium, which he turned into a military stronghold. He also spearheaded an even more remote cliffside fortress near the Dead Sea that is known today as Masada.
Yet, Herold wasn’t content to safeguard his fragile kingdom through murdering and fortress building. He soothed his imposter syndrome as a non-Jewish Idumean by marrying a princess from the Jewish Hasmonean royal line. He pacified his Jewish opponents by constructing an impressively ornate temple that significantly upgraded the 2nd temple that had disappointed its original builders. Herod also ingratiated himself to Rome by building an impressive and commercially successful harbor at a town he would name Caesarea. With Herod in place as a client king who had finally brought a degree of uneasy stability to a vital Middle Eastern crossroad, there’s no doubt that the wise Magi of the East knew enough to never take Herod up on an offer for a “dip” in his pool.
Herod looms over this whole story as a larger than life villain who found just enough leverage, common interests, and fear to stay at peace with his Jewish subjects and Roman benefactors. The Magi knew that visiting the volatile Herod was a huge risk.
If we’ve heard quite a bit about Herod’s monstrous reign, we certainly know quite a lot less about these Magi, who were respected for their social, political, and religious influence as interpreters of the stars and planets. Knowing who they were may help us get closer to the action of God pulsing throughout the layers of this story.
That brings us to our second point of clarity about this story:
Second Point: The Magi were important, and God was sending a vital message through them.
We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the Magi showing up at the birth of Jesus.
Within the 70-60 years before the birth of Jesus, astrology was an especially hot topic for Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus—the unchallenged ruler of the Mediterranean world and beyond at that time. As if to prove his position and authority as supreme ruler, Caesar widely promoted his horoscope and even included parts of it on coins, which served as imperial propaganda. In his eyes, the alignment of the moon with the powerful planet Jupiter at the time of his birth proved that he was destined to become the Roman Emperor. For people who valued these signs and symbols as influential omens, it appeared quite cut and dry.
By the time of Jesus, astrology had swept through the ancient world in part after Alexander the Great conquered Persia, a fate that astrologers in Persia had allegedly predicted no less! A mix of Greek-influenced Persian astrology became widespread and important to the point that the Ruler of the Roman Empire found it vital in justifying his reign. Suffice to say, astrology could make or break a king’s claim to the throne.
The Magi in Jesus’ day were a big deal in the eyes of their country, and they were likely respected in most countries they passed through—until they got to Israel. The Jews were surely a minority in their dismissal of astrology, and that position put them in a tough spot when the Magi showed up talking about the birth of their own King, if not the Messiah himself! To Jewish thinking, astrology was a pagan practice—full stop. The Magi were certainly intelligent and wise, but Jewish thinkers would never pair the Magi’s star viewing with Micah’s prediction about the Messiah.
The dilemma of the Jewish religious leaders could be our own to a degree. Although they relied on the scriptures as their ultimate guide, they had to consider that God had mercifully met the Magi where they were. If the Magi were looking at the night sky, it was possible that God provided a sign in that sky to guide them toward the true light. Perhaps we have too narrow a concept of God’s revelation.
While we shouldn’t bring astrology charts in church, perhaps we underestimate the possibility of finding God in nature. Maybe we overestimate our own wisdom and the authority of our own journeys to the point that we can’t see how God is reaching out to others in the only signs they’d recognize.
In addition, I can’t help noticing how much the Magi followed through on the star’s revelation. Although they were surely wealthy men with a degree of power and position, they didn’t let that keep them from making a perilous journey to a land where they were surely not welcome. The king was a murderous and often crazy tyrant, and the people had the lowest regard for astrologers. Whatever drove them to leave home was compelling enough to send them into a land where they surely stood out.
Now that we have a better handle on the Magi and Herod—or as much as we can manage in a few minutes for a character like him—let’s take a look at one other vitally important group in this Gospel narrative: the Jewish teachers.
Point Three: The Jewish teachers missed the Messiah due to divided loyalties.
While we can see the mercy of God toward the Magi in bright star over Bethlehem, we can also see the crisis of the Jewish scribes. They surely wanted to keep the peace with crazy king Herod. They had a lot to lose, and so we need to feel the alarm of Jerusalem when pagan astrologers reported a new Jewish king had been born. Was this an insurgent Hasmonean king? Was this the messiah? This had to be wrong, right?
Most importantly, if these Jewish teachers were reading about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem in Micah 5:2, they surely knew that a lot of fighting against God’s enemies follows in the rest of that chapter. If the Magi were right, which seemed impossible, a major disruptive, violent event was coming.
They had every reason to downplay the Magi and to stay put in Jerusalem while the pagan astrologers used a Jewish prophecy to find the long-awaited Jewish Messiah! It’s both tragically ironic and understandable that the Jewish teachers stayed put. Following the Magi would undermine their religious beliefs AND their fragile political alliances. They couldn’t afford to be curious, to just take a chance that the pagan astrologers were right.
For all that we can piece together about the setup of this narrative, we still have a lot of questions to ask. Let’s consider them for a moment before turning our attention to the bigger issue at play in this story. And so we have…
Point Four: We still don’t know much about the Magi or Jesus’ family in this story.
What motivated the magi the most to take this journey in the first place?
Did magi take such journeys regularly to celebrate royal births?
Or was this star such an astrological outlier that they HAD to see what the fuss was all about?
Was it really worth a brief visit to honor a newborn king in such a dangerous land?
What did they think of this poor peasant family living in a town far from where they had met and where Mary’s family resided? It appears that they left their gifts with this poor family in a forgotten arid town without asking any questions or making a fuss. We only know that they worshipped Jesus, gave him gifts, and then went on their way. When God spoke to them in a dream, they obediently went home another way in order to spare the child’s life even if it endangered their standing before Herod—should he pursue them.
The Magi took huge risks and stepped out in what we would call faith. It’s tempting to make this story all about them and to suggest ways to imitate them. Yet, while we can find much to imitate about these Magi, I wonder if we can best ask what this story teaches us about God, not just what it teaches us about the Magi.
In fact, the importance of the Magi shifts and even grows once we realize that they surely represented God’s wider outreach to all people. The scope of Jesus’ ministry is already being established by the people who first served him. Jesus didn’t start his life among the wealthy and powerful of his own people, being honored by shepherds, but he also had a wider reach to the Gentile people whom these Magi represent.
Underneath the questions, awe, and irony of this story, we find that God has been at work in ways that would surprise us if we ourselves had been in the narrative. This subtle work of God offers us three points for reflection and action:
- God may show up in traditions outside our own.
If the Magi looked to the stars and many superstitious Gentiles relied on the stars for guidance, God offered a signpost to Jesus in the heavens. It was a remarkable star that literally pointed at a specific home beyond all doubt. The Magi would have been ridiculed by their own people for ignoring so obvious and significant a sign. God made the revelation of nature quite clear.
Such revelations in nature may prompt us to ask what other signs God has given to people from different religious traditions. How is God speaking to them? What should we make of these signs without giving in to superstition? Most importantly, how can we welcome sincere seekers who have religious experiences outside our tradition yet also want to know more about Jesus?
Will we stare at them as if they don’t belong?
2. God can speak to us in many ways.
In this story alone, God spoke through stars, scripture, doubting religion scholars, and dreams. Are we prepared to hear God in dreams, visions, revelations in nature, and unlikely, even unwilling prophets?
If we believe that the world is God’s handiwork reflecting his glory, power, and presence, then surely this story is an invitation to look at the world with more reverence and expectation. Even a religious leader with divided loyalties can surprise us with a timely insight. When we read scripture, God may offer us an answer that is precisely what we need in the moment.
That isn’t to say we should expect daily messages in these places. Rather, we have a reminder to be open and aware of how God may speak to us. When we have clarity, then we should act.
3. Finally, God will meet us on unfamiliar ground.
As we take obedient steps to follow God into the unknown, we will place ourselves beyond our own resources. When we are most powerless and uncertain, we have an opportunity to rely on God in new ways.
While God isn’t always asking us to take such risks or to always go beyond our resources, let’s remain aware of what is in front of us and what faithfulness looks like for us today and in the weeks to come. God doesn’t bless extreme challenges and actions for their own sake. Rather, God meets us in our obedience and attentiveness, whether that’s in everyday mundane acts or in the challenges and disruptive moments of life.
When obedience leaves us feeling the most exposed, conspicuous, and even vulnerable, we can trust that the eyes of God are also upon us.
As our attentiveness to God translates into obedient action, we can take comfort in being held by God’s loving gaze that carries us even in the most unstable moments of our lives.