SERMON IN A SENTENCE: The story of the wise men from the East demonstrates the breadth of God’s mercy, and the wise men demonstrate how properly to come to Jesus — in worship.
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 2:1-12
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at it’s rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 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.’ ” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
8 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.” 9 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. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
VERSES 1-12: OVERVIEW
“Matthew’s sublime story of the adoration of the Magi has often been better understood by poets and artists than by scholars, whose microscopic analysis has missed its essence” (Hare, 12). What a wonderful insight! The difference is one of attitude. The poet and artist approach scripture with wonder and affection — with the heart. The scholar approaches scripture systematically and analytically — with the head. Both have their place. We need to approach Christ with both head and heart. The Magi came with joy in their hearts to see the Christ child. God blesses us when we do the same.
Matthew tells a very different story than Luke:
— Instead of shepherds, Matthew tells of wise men from the East.
— Instead of a stable, Matthew takes us to Herod’s palace.
— Instead of a manger, Matthew shows us gifts fit for a king.
— Instead of angels, Matthew tells us of dreams.
Although we tend to think of the shepherds and wise men gathered together around the manger, the shepherds come from nearby and the wise men from afar. The wise men’s visit probably took place long after the shepherds had departed. Mary and Joseph remained in the vicinity of Bethlehem and Jerusalem until Jesus had been circumcised and presented in the Temple (Luke 2:22-38). Mary also needed time to recover from the delivery before being able to travel to Nazareth. Presumably the wise men visited during the latter part of Mary and Joseph’s visit to Bethlehem and Jerusalem. There is no mention of a stable or manger in Matthew. Perhaps the people who had occupied the guest room for the
census had departed, allowing the Holy Family to improve their lodgings.
Matthew includes a number of dark elements in his story:
— Joseph resolves to put Mary away quietly (1:19).
— Herod kills babies in an attempt to do away with the newborn king (2:16-18).
— Joseph and his family flee to Egypt to escape the murderous king (2:13-15).
— When Joseph and family return from Egypt, they go to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem because another violent king was ruling Judea (2:19-23).
VERSES 1-2: WHERE IS THE CHILD?
Verse 1: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem…”
This is Herod the Great. His sons, Herod Archelaus, Herod Philip, and Herod Antipas, will succeed their father upon his death in 4 B.C. Herod the Great was, in many ways, a truly great king. He kept the peace. He built the Temple. He was sometimes generous. However, he was genuinely paranoid, murdering
rivals, real or imagined. He had his wife and three of his sons executed. His Massacre of the Innocents (2:16-18), modeled after Pharaoh’s killing of Israelite babies (Exod 2:1-10), is in keeping with his character.
We know little about the wise men or Magi (Greek magoi) from the East. We call them kings, but Matthew does not. We think of them as astrologers because they were observing stars (v. 2), and astrology was considered a learned occupation. The word, magoi, is also found in Acts 8:9-24 and 13:6-11, where it is translated magician or sorcerer. From the perspective of the Jewish people, magoi looked to the stars for answers that could legitimately come only from God — or worked magic using demonic powers. They were far from the kingdom of God, which makes them especially useful for Matthew’s purposes.
As a side note, astrology (primarily as horoscopes) is still popular. While Matthew treats these magoi kindly, that does not mean that astrology or horoscopes are legitimate for us. There is good reason to consider them an alternate religious system, incompatible with Christian faith. God — not stars
— is in control. God’s primary means of revelation are prophets, scriptures, sacraments, and Son — not stars.
Most significantly, the wise men are Gentiles. Matthew’s Gospel is very Jewish, but he introduces these Gentile worshipers at the beginning, preparing us for Jesus’ last words to his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations?” (28:19). We are struck by the contrast between these Gentiles, who follow the star to Jesus, and the chief priests and scribes, who know the scriptures but who do nothing to seek out the Messiah, whom they have determined to be only five miles away in Bethlehem (v. 5). God’s people ignore the Messiah, while pagans eagerly seek him out.
Matthew will treat favorably a Roman centurion (8:5-13) and a Canaanite woman (15:21-28). He also includes women, including women of questionable repute, in Jesus’ genealogy. He makes it clear that the barriers that separate humans from humans do not separate humans from God’s love. As the writer of Ephesians will later say, “he? has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph 2:14). That work began at the nativity. Epiphany challenges us to consider who we might consider to be unworthy (welfare mothers, kids with baggy pants, smokers, Muslims, etc.) and how we, the church, might reach out to them in Christian love.
We think of the wise men as three in number because they gave three gifts, but they could have been any number. Storytellers have named them Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar, but those names have no foundation in scripture. They were well-intentioned but naive, not understanding that a reigning monarch might be threatened at the birth of a potential usurper of the throne.
Verse 2: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at it’s rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
Scholars have tried to identify the star that led the wise men. Halley’s Comet was visible in 11 B.C., and there was a brilliant conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C. However, there has been no agreement regarding the star, nor is there likely to be. This star did not behave as stars do, but stopped over the place where the child was (v. 9-10). This is a story of supernatural rather than natural occurrence.
VERSES 3-6: IN BETHLEHEM OF JUDEA
Verse 3: “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him…”
The differences between Jesus and Herod could not have been greater.
— Jesus was born in a stable; Herod lived in a palace.
— Jesus was a helpless infant; Herod possessed great power.
— Jesus would prove to be a man of great compassion; Herod was cruel and violent.
Herod was frightened. Why would a king fear a baby? Perhaps he was simply paranoid. Perhaps his paranoia was fed by feelings of illegitimacy. Many people in high positions feel like pretenders, wondering when their illegitimacy will be revealed and their power stripped from them. Herod had
more reason than most to feel illegitimate. He was of Arab descent, and ruled at Rome’s pleasure. His father had gained power by supporting Julius Caesar, and was named procurator of Judea by Caesar in 47 B.C. His family ruled the area for a century and a half. The Jews, wanting a king of their own, resented him. Given half a chance, they would have overthrown him. Even though Herod was not a Godly man, he would have worried about a God-ordained leader being born nearby.
Matthew’s comment, “and all Jerusalem with him” is interesting. Given Herod’s temper, they feared what he might do in a murderous rage. Also, Matthew is already implicating the Jewish people. They will later share in the guilt of the crucifixion, but already they stand with Herod.
Verses 4-6: “…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.”‘”
In verses 3-4, Matthew gathers together the people who will serve as Jesus’ opponents through his lifetime — all Jerusalem, the chief priests and the scribes. Caiaphas is high priest (Matt 26:3, 57; John 18:13, 24), but his name is closely linked with Annas, his father-in-law, who may have preceded him in
that office (John 18:13; Luke 3:2). We will see Annas and Caiaphas again as Jesus is being prepared for crucifixion (John 18:13, 24). The scribes are experts in Jewish law. We will see the scribes frequently in Matthew’s Gospel, where they will be in conflict with Jesus on nearly every occasion.
Bethlehem, five miles south of Jerusalem, was David’s birthplace. It is a small town, a lowly place, an appropriate setting for Jesus’ humble birth. However, it is a proud town, having given the Jewish people their greatest king. It is worth noting that King David’s origins were also humble. He served as a shepherd, a lowly occupation. When Samuel asked Jesse, David’s father, to bring his sons so that Samuel might determine which one God had chosen to be king, Jesse did not even think to include David, his youngest. It was only when Samuel had disqualified the other sons that Jesse sent for David. David’s early fame came when, unable to manage a man’s armor, he faced Goliath with only a slingshot. Humble beginnings — great ends! Now this humble town gives Israel its messiah. Never again will it be an unknown, backwater, village!
The prophets quoted are Micah 5:2 and Samuel 2 Sam 5:2. Matthew has a higher interest in the fulfillment of scripture than any other Gospel writer. Here he establishes not only that the prophets had foretold Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but that the religious establishment knows it and does nothing about it.
The wise men get their first clue from nature; they see a star in the East. The information from that source, however, is incomplete. The need the scriptures to inform them more fully. They must come to Jerusalem, the center of Jewish worship, to be led by the scriptures to Bethlehem. “On the other hand, simply knowing the scripture is not enough to bring one to authentic Christian worship. The chief priests and scribes know the Bible, but they miss the Messiah?.” (Long, 19)
VERSES 7-8: BRING ME WORD
Verse 7: “Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.”
Herod is concerned about the exact time that the star appeared, because that information will help him to track down the baby. He decides to kill all the children in Bethlehem two years old and under, drawing the lines broadly enough to be sure of removing the baby who threatens his throne (2:16-18). His efforts prove futile, however, because God will warn both the wise men and Joseph, who will flee to Egypt with his little family (2:13-15).
Verse 8: “Then (Herod) 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.’ ”
The treachery, which Jesus will endure later in his life, begins in his infancy, as does the hypocrisy of his enemies.
VERSES 9-11: THEY OFFERED HIM GIFTS
Verse 9: “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.”
Stars do not stop in their orbits. This is not a natural phenomenon, but a sign from God.
Verse 10: “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”
Note the contrast between the joy of these Gentiles and the fear of Herod and Jerusalem. The people who should have been prepared to receive Christ with great joy were instead afraid. Those least likely to care anything about a Jewish Messiah received him joyfully. During his ministry, Jesus will turn many assumptions on their ear, and he begins this work in his infancy.
Verse 11: “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.”
They kneel to Jesus, “unwittingly anticipating that day when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil 2:10-11)” (Hare, 13).
The gifts seem odd for a baby. We expect rattles and baby clothes and toys. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh, however, speak to Jesus’ future. Gold is a gift for a king. Frankincense is used in temple worship (Exod 30:34) — a gift fit for a priest. Myrrh is used by the high priest as an anointing oil (Exodus 30:23). It is also used to prepare bodies for burial, and Nicodemus will bring a mixture of aloe and myrrh to prepare Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39-40).
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are not only expensive gifts, but they are portable. Very soon (2:13), an angel will tell Joseph to flee Herod. Joseph will not be able to take many possessions, but he can take gold, frankincense, and myrrh. He can sell them along the way to finance the journey to Egypt. Perhaps these gifts are God’s provision for the journey that lies ahead.
VERSE 12: HAVING BEEN WARNED IN A DREAM
“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
Try as he might, Herod cannot derail God’s plan for the salvation of the world. The Herods of this world are no match for God — or God’s people. The wise men “were ‘innocent as doves.’ Now as they return to their own land they are at last a ‘wise as serpents'” (Sweet, 3).
The word translated “road” in the NRSV is hodos, a word which Matthew will use to describe the “narrow road” (7:13-14) and “the way of righteousness” (21:32). Bruner finds here “the truth that encounter with Christ means not only a new metaphysical relationship (worship) but also new moral, material or social relationships: it means ‘going another Way’…” (Bruner, 50).
How many of you have heard the story of the Wise Men before? Raise your hands. How many have heard it at least ten times? Fifty times?
Most stories lose their punch once we have heard them several times. We very seldom sit still to listen to a story ten times — or fifty times. This story may have lost some of its punch. However, it is so dramatic that we retell it and sing the song “We Three Kings of Orient Are” every year.
The story of the Wise Men reminds me of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Some of you will remember the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When my son was younger, he loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He had all kinds of Turtle junk. He watched the Turtles on television. One of the highlights of his life was when we went to a big stage show and the Turtles appeared live on-stage.
When I first heard of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I thought that they must be something darkly sinister — a threat to everything that I stand for. When our son’s grandmother first heard about them, she asked hesitantly, “Is the second word that I am hearing, ‘mutant’?” Then I learned that the Turtles
promoted positive values and were generally O.K., regardless of their weird appearance.
(NOTE TO THE PREACHER: You could substitute Star Wars characters here — or any number of the creative animated characters in the movies today. The idea is to highlight creative story telling.)
I wondered, “How does someone go about creating something like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? That is a significant question, because whoever created it made millions of dollars. I would not mind making millions of dollars. My first impression was that the creators had to be really strange people. Then I realized that they were, in fact, creative geniuses. They created something totally different, and captured the imaginations of millions of children.
But what does that have to do with the Wise Men? If you will stop and try to see the Christmas story with fresh eyes, you will see that is replete with characters and events every bit as imaginative as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
— It tells of God being born to an unwed, teenage mother. Think about that for a moment. You have heard the story so many times that it seems natural. But think about God being born to an unwed, teenage mother.
— It tells of God being born in a stable.
— It tells of angels appearing to shepherds on a lonely hillside. When did you last see an angel?
— It tells of Wise Men seeing a star and gaining an audience with the King. How easy was it to get an appointment to see the King?
— It tells of Wise Men following the star until they find the baby.
— It tells of Wise Men giving the baby gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Let’s get serious! We love our children. Most of us have spent more than we should on Christmas gifts for our children. How many of us have ever given our children gifts of gold — or frankincense — or myrrh?
— It tells of Wise Men departing the area secretly after being warned that King Herod wanted to harm the baby Jesus.
— It tells of King Herod sending soldiers to kill all the baby boys. Can you imagine anything so horrible?
The fact is that God is a pretty good story-teller too. In fact, you might say that God is a creative genius. He could have found all kinds of boring ways to tell us how much he loves us. In fact, he pulled out all the stops, didn’t he? The result is that we hear these stories over and over and over again — and love them every time.
But God didn’t provide these stories simply to entertain us. They are stories with a message. Why would God tell this story about the Wise Men? What is the message?
It is significant that Matthew is the only one of the four Gospels to include the story of the Wise Men. Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels:
— It begins with a long genealogy that starts with Abraham and marches down through the generations until it comes to Joseph. In other words, Matthew links Jesus directly to the great heroes of Jewish history.
— It moves to the story of Joseph and Mary, a devout Jewish couple.
— It quotes the Old Testament — the Jewish scriptures.
Then, in a dramatic departure, Matthew tells this story of “wise men from the east.” The Wise Men were not Jews. They were Persians or Iranians. It is as if Matthew is saying, “Yes, I am telling the story of the birth of the Jewish Messiah. You will never understand him unless you understand that he is Jewish. But — he is more than Jewish. He came in response to the longing of the Jewish people for a savior — but he came also in response to the longing of people everywhere for a savior. This Jewish Messiah is everyone’s Christ.”
If Matthew had not included this story, we could have read Matthew’s Gospel and concluded, “There is no hope for anyone but the Jews.” We would all have to march down the street after services today to join the synagogue. But Matthew included this story to assure us that we too are part of God’s story — and God’s love.
The early Christians didn’t get the point. They kept the Christian Gospel within the Jewish family. Only Jews were welcome. It isn’t until the 10th chapter of Acts that Peter finally gets the word. In that chapter, God shows Peter a vision of a great sheet being let down from heaven. The sheet held all kinds of animals, birds and reptiles. A great voice spoke, saying, “Get up, Peter, Kill and eat.” This, of course, would have been a massive violation of the Jewish kosher laws.
At first, Peter was having none of it. His answer was, “Surely not, Lord!” Hear that! Peter knew that it was God who had told him to break the kosher laws, but he could not bring himself to do it because that wouldn’t be pleasing to God — would it?
And then, Cornelius, a Roman centurion — not a Jew — appeared on Peter’s doorstep, having come to learn of Jesus. Peter finally understood and obeyed — and welcomed Cornelius into the family of God. But that didn’t happen until the 10th chapter of Acts — long after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
But God gives us a clue, right in the beginning, that this is the direction in which he is headed. He gives us the clue when he brings in the Wise Men from the East — these men who are not Jews, but who have come to see Jesus.
And this story promises us that we too are part of God’s story. It promises us that everyone is part of God’s story — “red and yellow, black and white, we are precious in his sight.” It matters not whether we are man or woman, black or white, rich or poor. God gives this story to let us know that he loves all
These Wise Men — pagan men from a pagan land — show us how to respond to Christ. They follow God’s lead until they come to Christ’s feet; they rejoice; they fall on their knees; they worship him; and they give him gifts.
Today, as we come to the close of the Christmas season, let us begin again to follow God’s lead until we come to Christ’s feet; let us rejoice; let us fall on our knees; let us worship him; and let us give him our gifts. And let us give him the greatest gift — that we love one another as he has taught us to love.
Rene Schafer was a Dutch soldier who, during World War II, spent three and a half years as a prisoner of war in Japan. He was put to work building tankers in a Hiroshima shipyard. He suffered greatly during those years and learned to hate his guards and all Japanese. Every night he would offer a silent prayer that God would bring about an attack on the city that would both exact revenge and end the war. Oscar Wilde used to say that when the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers. The gods answered the prayer of this POW on an August day in 1945. Schafer describes the scene immediately after the nuclear bomb exploded. All around him were the frightfully wounded. He says:
I thought I was living after the end of the world. I stumbled back to our camp where one of the Dutch officers gave orders to search for other POW’s and to carry the wounded up a nearby hill and out of the way of the fire. I went back and forth three times that night, taking not only POW’s but injured guards as well. These were men I had hated that very morning and had wished to be dead. Now I was saving their lives. From the moment the bomb went off, you see, there was no hatred left. It was a strange experience–how hate can be turned to pity by a single bomb. There was no difference for me between the Japanese victims and my friends. I felt myself a victim among other victims, not a Dutchman among Japanese. The bomb had killed all hate.
— From an article in New York Times, 6 August 1984, p A21
Frederick Buechner has written of humanity as being an “enormous spider web, so that if you touch it anywhere, you set the whole thing trembling.”
— Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark
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A Christian and a Jew were arguing religion. The Jew said, “Most good things about Christianity you took from the Jews — the Ten Commandments, for instance.”
The Protestant replied, “We may have taken the Ten Commandments from you, but you can’t claim that we’ve kept them.”
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I was born to a woman I never knew, and raised by another who took in orphans.I do not know my background, my lineage, my biological or cultural heritage.But when I meet someone new, I treat them with respect. For after all, they could be my people.
— James Michener, the famous author
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By blood and origin, I am all Albanian. My citizenship is Indian. I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the whole world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to Jesus.
— Mother Teresa
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Ironic, isn’t it? The task of this community is to reach out, through the Spirit of love? to draw all men and women into the communion of love?. And yet we find it so hard to hold out our hearts to our own household. Little wonder that the unbeliever seeking a sign turns away sadly: “Look how these
Christians hate one another!”
— Walter J. Burghardt, Still Proclaiming Your Wonders
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