Grace Presbyterian Church
January 6, 2020, Epiphany A
It is a story that clanks noisily against the story we tend to think of as the “Christmas story.” We are accustomed to think of what Luke’s gospel teaches us, of all the angelic annunciations, especially Gabriel to Mary; the whole business about everybody having to return to their hometowns to be registered, therefore Joseph and Mary having to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem; the birth in a manger, because there was no room in the inn; the angels singing out to the shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks, and their surprise journey to Bethlehem. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, we have to wedge in the wise men somehow. Of course they’re not part of Luke’s story; this evening’s reading from Matthew is our only source for this event.
Perhaps that is why making the time to observe this event, under the name Epiphany and on its own date, is a particularly needful thing for the church to do in this time. While we have become accustomed over the decades to having the wise men crammed into the Nativity scene with all the shepherds and angels, the story of their coming to pay homage to the child Jesus has a different lesson to teach us, one that is all too easily and all too often drowned out in the madness of the holidays. It’s a lesson about who God is and who God calls, a lesson we forget at our peril.
In her last book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, the late Christian author Rachel Held Evans writes of how the God revealed in Ascripture is often misunderstood by those who claim to be followers:
There’s a curious but popular notion circulating around the church these days that says God would never stoop to using ancient genre categories to communicate. In addition to once again prioritizing modern, Western (and often uniquely American) concerns, this notion overlooks one of the most central themes of scripture itself: God stoops.
From walking with Adam and Eve through the Garden of Eden, to traveling with the liberated Hebrew slaves in a pillar of cloud and fire, to slipping into flesh and eating, laughing, suffering, healing, weeping, and dying among us as part of humanity, the God of scripture stoops and stoops and stoops and stoops. At the heart of the gospel message is a God who stoops to the point of death on a cross.
Held Evans goes on to make the point that when it comes to reaching out to us sometimes dumb and witless humans, nothing is beneath God, no matter how primitive or unseemly it might be to us. And what happens in Matthew’s distinctive contribution to the Nativity story might be the most striking example of that we have.
Matthew only identifies our visitors as “wise men from the East.” They show up in Jerusalem looking for the one born “King of the Jews,” and there’s some logic to showing up at a royal palace to look for a future king, I suppose. The ever-paranoid King Herod learns from his scribes what these foreigners could possibly be talking about, gives them directions along with a request to drop back by and talk about the whereabouts of this child, and the wise men are on their way. Should you choose to keep reading the rest of this chapter, you’ll see how that goes.
But about these wise men, or Magi: “from the East” is a pretty vague description. Given the geographical state of the region at this time, far and away the most likely origin for these Magi was the Persian Empire, an extensive region centered primarily on the land occupied by present-day Iran (an extreme irony, given the historical moment we are currently experiencing).
As such, these Magi were probably scholar-priests of the dominant religion of that region, Zoroastrianism. While perhaps not as distant as the panoply of gods worshiped in the Greco-Roman culture that occupied Judea at the time, it was definitely different and “foreign” to the Jewish people and culture into which Jesus was born. The Magi tell us up front that they made this trip because they saw a star, and that would fit in well with the pursuits of a Zoroastrian Magi. All in all, not a set that would seem to fit in well with the shepherds and angels and Mary and Joseph.
But here’s the thing: God. Did. Not. Care.
To return to Rachel Held Evans’s phrase, God stooped. To catch the attention of a bunch of Eastern stargazers, God made that Star happen. God did not care how “foreign,” how “different,” or how outside of every norm these Magi might seem to the people of Israel. God wanted them to see and to behold the child Jesus, and so God made that Star happen. And Matthew wrote it down. God stooped, and not even to the people who long understood themselves as God’s own children.
We have no idea what happened to these wise men after they dodged Herod on their way home. Matthew does not follow their story, and it is not recorded anywhere else as far as we know. Yet their very existence throws an absolutely necessary wrench into our easily sentimentalized “Christmas story,” so often stripped bare of all that challenges and disturbs. They challenge us to look again at the God who tracked them down through the stars and gave them the jolt they required to make a long and difficult journey to see a child like no other. They show us that the God we worship is not satisfied with the way things are, not content to keep the circle of God’s calling to those who are familiar to us or around whom we are comfortable and at ease. God stoops, not just to us, but to the outsider.
This is perhaps why Epiphany matters in a way we don’t often remember. These Magi come bursting into our cozy and comfortable scene with their strange language and strange religion and strange gifts (the gold is cool, but the frankincense and myrrh are odd at best), reminding us at even this most cozy-fied time of year that there’s a whole world out there beyond our comfort zones and happy places that God is just itching for us to reach out to and welcome and bear light, be a shining star even.
God stooped. Will we?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #673, Jesus, Light of Joy; #149, All Hail to God’s Anointed; #152, What Star is This, With Beams So Bright; #150, As With Gladness Men of Old
(Of course, sometimes we even make the Magi as familiar and “comfortable” as possible…)