From Pastor Kenny's Desk
January 7, 2018
“After Jesus’ birth–which happened in Bethlehem of Judea, during the reign of Herod–astrologers from the East arrived in Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the newborn ruler of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay homage.’ At this news Herod became greatly disturbed, as did all of Jerusalem. Summoning all the chief priests and religious scholars of the people, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.
‘In Bethlehem of Judea,’ they informed him. ‘Here is what the prophet has written: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah, since from you will come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’’
Herod called the astrologers aside and found out from them the exact time of the star’s appearance. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, after having instructed them, ‘Go and get detailed information about the child. When you have found him, report back to me – so that I may go and offer homage, too.’
After their audience with the ruler, they set out. The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at seeing the star and, upon entering the house, found the child with Mary, his mother. They prostrated themselves and paid homage. Then they opened their coffers and presented the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went back to their own country by another route." Matthew 2:1-12
An epiphany is a revelation or awakening and comes from a Greek word that is translated most literally as a “revealing,” a manifestation of the Divine. We use the word in everyday language to talk about a moment of deep insight or awareness when all the pieces fall together. In Christian use, Epiphany names the day, January 6th … 12 days after Christmas, when we celebrate that revelation that Jesus is the light of the world.
Of the whole world, actually, and that’s where the connection between Epiphany and the story of the three magi in Matthew comes. For while Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, Christians confess that through him God seeks to save the whole world, just as through Abraham God sought to bless the whole world. Matthew tells of three magi, or wandering astrologers … the ones we often call the “three kings” … coming from the East following a star of illumination to worship the newborn king, Jesus. This scene represents God’s inclusion of Gentiles into the promises made first to Israel.
There are two ways to tell the story of the astrologers from the East, one shaped for the ears, hearts, and minds of our children, and one better suited to adults.
This is the story of three kings (astrologers) who came from afar bearing gifts for the newborn king. There’s a wonder and magic … no pun intended … about this story of wondering magi led to Jesus from the distant East by a star. It testifies to the far-reaching … global and cosmic! … implications of Jesus’ birth. Even more, it witnesses to God’s commitment to reach all the world with news of God’s redeeming love.
We love this story … which adults needs to hear … in part because of the mystery these three distant and somewhat exotic guests introduce into the story, and in part because of the beauty and fittingness of their gifts … the source of all our gift-giving at Christmas. It has led to the wonderful Christmas carol “We Three Kings” and “spin-off” carols and stories like that of “The Little Drummer Boy.”
If we focus our attention on the gifts of the kings we might also ponder what gifts we might offer … what talents, interests, passions might we see as gifts from God that we now can offer to Jesus by giving them to those all around us and especially to those in need?
There is also another element to this story that often gets lost in the shuffle of our contemplation of the magi, and that’s the note of fear and opposition that Jesus’ birth brings right from the start. Herod, after all, does not greet the news of a newborn king with joy nor does he search for a fit gift to present the messiah. Rather, he is afraid. And not just Herod, but all Jerusalem with him.
Why? Perhaps it is because the one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to remain in power. Gone from Herod and his court is any notion of the kind of servant leadership prescribed and required by Israel’s prophets. Gone is the memory that God placed them in their positions to serve rather than be served. Herod seeks his own ends and so is immediately threatened by even the mere mention of another … and therefore rival … king.
But perhaps it’s also simply that the presence of these three magi and their quest for God’s messiah announce that the world is changing … that God is approaching … and that nothing can remain the same in the presence of God’s messiah. The arrival of these wondering astrologers' signals that the reach of God’s embrace is broadening considerably … that there is no longer “insider” and “outsider” but that all are included in God’s plan of redemption and love. This isn’t a new theme in Judaism, as from the very beginning of the story God promises to bless Abraham that he may, in turn, be a blessing from the world. But now it is happening … all distinctions between people of different ethnicities and religions is dissolving. All are becoming one in Jesus, the Promised One … and who knows what may change next.
Whatever its various and sundry causes, fear is a powerful thing. In response to their fear, Herod, along with the chief priests and scribes, conspire to find the Messiah and kill him. They will not succeed this time, but much later in the story there will again be an unholy alliance between the political and religious leaders of the day who will not only conspire against Jesus but this time capture and crucify him.
And what about us? What does fear do to us? Do we install more security systems in our homes and cars? Do we build more gates or buy more guns? Do we save even more for retirement, pulling back from charitable contributions to make sure we have enough? Do we close our hearts … and minds … to those who are different? What?
The adult version of Matthew’s nativity moves quickly from the glad moment of the adoration and gifts of the magi to a darker, more ambivalent world of political intrigue, deception, and fear-induced violence. But if Matthew’s story is more sober, it is also realistic. We live in a world riddled by fear, a world of devastating super-storms and violence, a world where innocents die every day to preventable illness and hunger. In Matthew’s story of the visit of the magi Matthew renders an accurate and difficult picture of our world.
Yet, I believe that is what is at the heart of Matthew’s darker, more adult-oriented story of Jesus’ birth: the promise that is precisely this world that God came to, this people so mastered by fear that we often do the unthinkable to each other and ourselves that God loves, this gaping need that we have and bear that God remedies. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable promise that God chose to come live and die for us … just as we are … so that in Jesus we might experience newness of life … and hope … and love … and grace … and so much more!
I think Matthew would agree. Certainly, Matthew sketches his story of Jesus’ birth … and our lives … with darker strokes precisely so that we might perceive the love and grace of God’s redemption in Jesus all the more clearly … kind of like a bright star shining high in the heavens and leading us to greet our Savior, Redeemer and Sustainer!
All of this serves as an invitation to bring all of our gifts to our God by sharing them with those in need … remembering that when we hoard, covet, cheat or betray … yet still, Emmanuel still bears the promise that God has truly seen who and what we are and loves us still … just the way we are. Thanks be to God!