[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on January 1, 2023, which was my final Sunday serving there as their parish associate. The message is based on Matthew 2:1-12, which should be read in as many Bible versions as you have, or can find on the internet. It can also be watched on the Perinton Presbyterian Facebook page.]
I have been married for 54 years, which means my wife knows me really well. She knows me better than anyone else. Only God knows me better, and sometimes I think she may have the edge. So when she tells me something about me, I am wise not to argue but to listen and learn. Like when she says that I always prefer to get someplace new in the most indirect way possible. I have listened, but not learned very well. I do like scenic routes. And I trust my internal GPS more than I trust that one on the dashboard of my car with the snarky voice. I know how to get where we are going! I can prove it—I have always made it there. Though sometimes late and usually covering lots of extra miles.
I identify with the magi. The star—how is that for a GPS?—is leading them to Bethlehem, but they go to Jerusalem. Who wouldn’t want to cruise through Jerusalem on the way to Bethlehem? Jerusalem is a beautiful city; Bethlehem is a backwater town. Let’s get some pictures of us on our camels next to the western wall of the temple. Look how the temple gleams in the sunshine. There is no straight four-lane divided highway to little Bethlehem. It is an awe-filled journey.
What would have happened if they had been Wise Women instead of Wise Men? They would have asked directions right away, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole and cookies, and brought practical gifts like baby toys, diapers, and formula, and there would be peace on earth. But, alas, the Magi were men!
I love the story of the Magi, but we need to do some clarifying. We don’t know how many there were, but likely far more than three. They don’t arrive to find Jesus a new-born baby in the manger. They find Jesus a “child” (a different word than “baby”) living with his parents in a house, probably a rental. They likely arrive months after Jesus was born, maybe a year, but within two years of his birth.
The Gospel of Luke gives us all the details about Elizabeth and Zechariah, about Mary (and precious little about Joseph), the stable (no room available in the inn) and the manger, the angelic chorus and the shepherds. Matthew gives us the Magi and their awe-filled journey. What Luke and Matthew both us give us is lots of traveling. Hundreds of miles of traveling. They racked up serious frequent flyer miles. Mary and Joseph would travel at least 300 miles before they returned to Nazareth. The Magi travel between 500 and 900 miles one way.
There are several key players in this narrative: (1) the Magi, (2) King Herod, and (3) the religious leaders Herod gathers. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are playing passive roles, never saying one word.
- The Magi are probably from Persia, once known as Babylon and today known as Iran. They are astrologers, which today would be astronomers. Think astro-physicists. They may serve a priestly role in Persian religion. To Israelites, they were considered pagans. What is essential about them is they are willing to follow a star a great distance without knowing just where it would lead them.
- King Herod is a typical power-hungry politician, embellishing his resume whenever it serves his purposes. He was born Idumean, hailing from Edom, but pretended he was Jewish to curry favor with the Israelites he governed. Herod has religious leaders (chief priests and teachers of the law) in his pocket, beholden to him, ready to tell him what he wants to hear. What is essential about him is that is crazed with jealousy when he hears a baby has been born who is called king of the Jews.
- The chief priests and teachers of the law know their scriptures. When Herod gathers them, they are quick to quote Micah 5 about Messiah being born in little Bethlehem. Yea for them. Then they make no effort to go to Bethlehem themselves. They take not one step down on the six-mile or so road to Bethlehem. What is essential about them is that they do not take one step toward Bethlehem to see this child. They represent religion at its worst: textbook answers without living faith and warm hearts. Bono, the lead singer for U2, recently said, “It’s almost like religion is what happens when the Spirit has left the building.”
I think the most dangerous profession is religious leader. Which is why I don’t want to be known as a religious leader. Religious leaders are ever in danger of memorizing right answers and living without vital faith, without love for God and neighbor. Just call me Harry and don’t take any religious titles that might be applied to me seriously.
Of these three groups of key players—the Magi, King Herod, and the religious leaders—which did the right thing? Yes, the pagan foreigners. They take the journey of faith. They follow the star. They listen to heavenly nudges and get up and go. I want to be numbered with them.
How they act when they finally get to Bethlehem is a model for faithfulness. First, they worship the child. The word used means to bow down, face to the ground. Literally, it means kissing forward, all the way down. Their worship is full-bodied and expansive. We Presbyterians can learn from them. Too often, our worship is carefully restrained: no displays of emotion; no verbal responses; no outbursts of joy.
Second, they bring lavish gifts. These are strange gifts for a young child, but they reflect their Persian culture. And they are costly. It is because of them that we exchange gifts at Christmas. They started it, and I am grateful. Gift giving is a wonderful custom. I believe in re-gifting. Some gifts need to be paid forward. Like the mittens and hats my auntie Lida used to knit each year. And that brick of a fruitcake that Ruth gave us. I think our mail deliverer got it, nicely wrapped.
Third, they experience joy. “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” The literal translation is mega-joy. They are mega-joyed even before they see the child. They are traveling with joy. We could use a big dose of mega-joy in our journeys. Madeleine L’Engle penned a poem entitled “The First Coming” that concludes:
We cannot wait till the world is sane/ to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,/ He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
No Christmas pageant is complete without them. Every nativity set welcomes them. I love them. They make me want to journey in awe-filled faith. They make me want to follow God’s star, to dream God’s dreams, and to see God’s visions.
Many of you have been asking me what I will be doing in my next chapter. I don’t fully know and I don’t have to know. But I just answered: I want to be more like the Magi. I will seek to journey in awe-filled faith, to follow God’s star, to dream God’s dreams, and to see God’s visions. What about you? What will you be doing in this new year?
Mary Oliver has written a little poem entitled “Summer Day.” It ends with this question, for you and for me: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”