By Jim Taylor
Matthew 2: 1-12
Matthew 4: 3-8
I mentioned the Wise men, the magi, visitors from the east, four weeks ago when I started this series of services about the Cast of Characters in the Christmas Story. You remember that they came to King Herod to find out where the next king had been born.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi[a] 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 in the east[b] and have come to pay him homage.”
It’s actually surprising how little the Bible tells us about those men. Except that they were men, of course. Women wouldn’t have had the power, or the wealth, or the freedom, to travel. And that they came from the east. Perhaps from Persia. Perhaps Afghanistan. Perhaps India. Perhaps even China, who knows? Certainly, they were wealthy. They brought with them expensive gifts – gold, myrrh, and frankincense.
Matthew 2:9-11 9
When they had heard the king, they set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen in the east,[a] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[b] 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.
Those are symbolic gifts.
Gold, the most prized metal, the ultimate symbol of worldly wealth. And frankincense – the incense used, almost universally, in worship. Myrrh, an expensive spice used to delay the rotting of a dead body -- something like a primitive embalming fluid. An attempt to deny the reality of death.
All very valuable. I can’t help wondering -- did the wise men bring gifts? Or temptations?
You see, by some strange irony, Jesus was tempted by those same three gifts when he fled to the desert to figure out what his mission might be. The stories say that the Devil offered him the wealth of abundant food; worship and adoration; immunity to death. And Jesus rejected all three temptations.
The tempter said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become food for the nations….” (PAUSE)
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
‘God will command angels to bear you up…’ (PAUSE)
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will worship me.” (PAUSE)
But that’s for another sermon, some other time. Let’s get back to the Magi.
The legend gives them names. Melchior. Balthazar. Gaspar. That’s where we get the idea that there were three of them. The Bible doesn’t say that. It also doesn’t say whether they travelled alone, or with a horde of their servants, on camels or horses or elephants. Just that they came first to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem.
That’s the significant thing. They went first to visit the powers that be. On the assumption that if anyone knew anything important, it would be the people in charge.
Isn’t that still the way? If you want to get something done, you contact the premier’s office. You contact your member of parliament. You send a delegation to City Hall. You have coffee with the minister.
You go to the top.
And they found that Herod was clueless. (Like, maybe, some current politicians.) He didn’t know anything about a newborn King. He had to call in his own wise men to dig through his own scriptures. To find an obscure reference to a king being born in Bethlehem.
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[a] 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[b] my people Israel.’ ”
Which might have been read as a forecast of the Jesus birth. Or might equally have been praising Bethlehem for having given David to the Hebrew people.
7 Then Herod called for the magi[c] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 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.”
Either way, the strangers from the east left the executive suite, and headed out along back roads to an obscure village, perched on the edge of a valley that plunged away down to the Dead Sea.
In Bethlehem, the story tells us, they found a child. Probably a young boy by that time. Perhaps walking. Almost certainly crawling and exploring his world.
One of the pictures of Christian art that my father collected shows the young Jesus receiving gifts from the Magi. Jesus seems less interested in the gift, than in the wise man’s shiny bald head.
SLIDE OF WISE MEN AND JESUS – Gentile de Fabriano’s “The Adoration of the Wise Men”
Just like any small boy.
The significant thing in the story of the magi though is not their gifts. Or where they came from.
Matthew 2: 12
12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The significant thing is that they chose to go back another route. They no longer trusted the powers that be. That would be an earth-shaking move for them, because in their own countries, they WERE the powers that be.
TS Eliot wrote a poem about the Journey of the Magi. He ended it this way.
Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly.
We had evidence, and no doubt. I had seen birth and death
but thought they were different; this birth was
hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
They had changed. They no longer believed in the status quo. A miracle had happened. They no longer took their own traditional power structures for granted.
You may have noticed a theme running through these last four services. I have to admit that I didn’t see it myself when I started. But as I worked with the character studies, I found that all the stories tended to turn upside down my preconceptions of what the Christmas Story is all about.
More than that – they tended to turn upside down my preconceptions of how the world worked. About what life is all about.
And so I ask you to take these next couple of minutes as Elaine plays some music for reflection, to reflect on what’s changed for you. The Wise Ones went home a different way. As different people. Was there any insight that makes you look at Jesus’ birth differently? How are you going home by a different way?