Matthew 2:1-12New International Version (NIV)
2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
I hope that everyone had a great Christmas and that 2016 is off to a good start for you as well. I don’t see the offering, but I’m going to guess that at least one of you dated your check 2015 this morning. I usually remember to change the date around Easter.
Sonya, the children, and I spent last week in Ohio celebrating Christmas and my birthday, which was last Tuesday. We always enjoy catching up with family, and my children did well with their little cousins and didn’t seem to miss being the only grandchildren when it came time to open presents, perhaps because there were even more presents to be opened.
My children each got a Veggie Tales-themed stocking from their aunt Cassandra. If you aren’t familiar with Veggie Tales, it is a Christian-themed television program that has branched out into movies and music where vegetables act and sing out silly stories with good moral teachings worked in.
In one of the stockings we received a CD titled, “Veggie Tales: Bob and Larry Go Country,” which we got to listen to on the trip home. Bob is a tomato, Larry is a cucumber. And this CD is filled with “classic” country songs—classic being loosely defined—sung by Bob and Larry. Because who doesn’t want to hear a tomato and a cucumber sing “Achy Breaky Heart” all the way from Ohio to Virginia.
My gift to you all today is that I won’t play that song for you during the worship service.
Traveling and gifts seem to be a theme for today, Epiphany Sunday. And because I’m a mean-spirited person, I want to start today by shooting down all of your previously-held beliefs about this passage. Actually, I think it is helpful to look at how we understand this passage to remind us all of the ways that our culture can shape our understanding of biblical stories.
If I was to ask you to tell me everything that you know about today’s passage from Matthew chapter 2, you would probably tell me something like this. When Jesus was born in a stable, three wise men, three kings came from the Orient following a star. That star eventually led them to the stable where Jesus had just been born and they gave him their presents. Then the three kings, the angels, and the shepherds all sang Silent Night together, while the little drummer boy accompanied them.
Why do we believe these things? Why do we say that there were three wise men or three kings? We guess that there were three because they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Of course it would be embarrassing if more than one of them brought the same gift – Awe man, you brought gold, too? –, so there had to have been three of them. Or maybe there were four and one of them said, “Hey Frank. You mind if I go in on that gold with you? It’s been a tough year financially.”
So we have no idea how many wise men there were. We know that there was more than one, because they are referred to in the plural (perhaps the royal ‘we’?). But there could have been 2 or twenty. Some traditions claim that there were 12 wise men, which mirrors the number of tribes of Israel and later the disciples. This may have been why there is a song about the twelve days of Christmas where a different gift is given each day. We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.
We also tend to think of the wise men as having come from the Orient. The passage from Matthew gives us very little to go on here as far as their country of origin; we are only told that they come “ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν,” which means “from the rising,” as in, from the rising of the sun. The sun rises from the east, so the wise men came from the east. But does this mean Waynesboro or Charlottesville or even Richmond? Maybe even Europe? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.
And perhaps the biggest shocker for all of us is to learn that these were not wise men, but wise women. We know that because when they were following the star, they got turned around and went into Jerusalem. We know that they were women because men would never have asked for directions. Actually, we don’t know their gender, and it doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that we at least know that they were kings, right? Our modern translations leave the word “Magi” almost untranslated, where the King James Version first called these visitors “wise men.” Surely they were wise, because I can’t get anywhere by following a star. But we are never told that they are kings. That tradition come from applying Old Testament passages to this text, like Psalm 72:11, which says, “May all kings fall down before him.” No, these men were Magi, they were astrologers who looked to determine the future by looking at the stars, and they were sorcerers.
Let’s jump ahead to Acts chapter 16 for a second. In this chapter we find Paul and Barnabas interacting with a leader with the title “proconsul” of a city called Paphos. We pick up at verses 8-10, “But Elymas the sorcerer opposed [Paul and Barnabas] and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, ‘You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?’”
Elymas is not looked upon with favor by Paul, to put it nicely. He is called “a child of the devil.” We can’t say for sure just why Paul calls him a child of the devil, it might be because of his attempt to turn the proconsul from the teachings of Paul and Barnabas, and it might be because he is a sorcerer. Either way, this guy is not a friend of the Christian faith.
What word do you think is translated as “sorcerer” in verse 8 and a few verses before this one? It is the word we transliterate at Magi in our passage for today. Elymas and the wise men from our text practice the same religion. They are pagans and at least one of them is called a child of the devil.
So why do we believe that there are the wise men are three kings that come from the Orient? Well, in large part because we like to sing songs like “We three kings of Orient are…” But even more likely is because we want to keep the wise men safe. We like to domesticate them so they can sit in our nice little nativities worshipping the baby Jesus. We like to think of them as kings, great rulers from powerful nations, who realize that Jesus is Lord and worship him. That fits our theology better. But they were sorcerers from another land. It isn’t a surprise that the King James Version simply calls them wise men, and the NIV calls them Magi. We don’t like to think about how these men would be rejected and despised in so many of our churches today.
So while I’m shooting down Christmas traditions, I may as well keep going. The magi didn’t make it to the stable, verse 11 from our text today says that Jesus was staying in a house when they arrived. Jesus may have been as old as two-years-old when the magi arrived, which is why Herod has all male children age two and under killed. We have no reason to believe that there was a little drummer boy there, either, though I like his message. You don’t have to bring gold to Jesus, but bring what you can. Even if it is only a song.
Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, but this date was adopted from a pagan religion that celebrated the Winter Solstice, and those beautiful trees we decorate and put in our homes every year? You guessed it, those are a pagan symbol of virility adopted by Christians as well.
So I’ve been called a Grinch a time or two in my life. But I’m not telling you these things to ruin your Christmas. Quite the opposite. I like that Christians have adopted these stories and practices from other religions and repurposed them. This is the business that God is in. God takes things that are not as he would have them, and uses them anyway. And we are all examples of that.
This practice of repurposing people and things for his own glory is a theme we find throughout the book of Matthew. Last week we talked about how Luke introduces a theme in his gospel when he tells the story of Jesus getting lost in Jerusalem. The theme there is the joy in finding what was lost, and we see that theme throughout Luke’s gospel. Matthew is also introducing a theme in the story of the magi and that theme will repeat throughout Matthew’s gospel. Matthew’s theme is that God uses things that we never could even imagine for his purposes. Whether it is an evergreen tree or a sorcerer from the east, or a sinner such as me, God can use these things to further his kingdom.
I picked up an easy read this past week as I was vacationing called Accidental Saints: Finding God in the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Nadia is a Lutheran pastor, a recovering addict, and by her own confession a pretty messed-up person. This book is about her encounters with people who by no means have it all together. As she says, she tends to attract people to her church who are a lot like herself. She tells stories of how God uses people to make a difference in this world, people that you would never expect to be used by God. Addicts, sex-workers, chemically imbalanced, people who are the victims of abuse and people who are the abusers.
The thing that I loved about this book is that Nadia reminds us that we don’t have to have it all together for God to use us. Notice that I didn’t say that she told stories of God working through former addicts and sex-workers. When these people searched for God, God put them to work, just as they are. And slowly over time, they were changed. But they didn’t have to change first.
One of my favorite lines comes early in the book where she writes, “And anyway, it has been my experience that what makes us the saints of God in not our ability to be saintly but rather God’s ability to work through sinners. The title ‘saint’ is always conferred, never earned.”
This makes me think of these wise men, the magi, the sorcerers from the east. I don’t condone sorcery, and neither does God. But notice that Matthew never calls these men “former magi.” They are just called magi. We have no reason to believe that God said, “Hey, wait. You can’t come to Jesus and worship him as long as you are a sorcerer and as long as you are trying to divine the future from the stars. No, God actually takes their sin and uses it to draw them to God. And in that process, God uses the magi as some of the first evangelists as they tell the people of Jerusalem that the king of the Jews has been born.
Think of all of the people that God uses in the New Testament who don’t have it all together. It starts with God entering the world through a poor, unmarried, common girl. The first people to celebrate the birth of Jesus are dirty shepherds who visit him in a barn. Jesus’ birth is heralded by sorcerers. And later, Jesus selects his closest group of friends and future leaders of the church from fishermen, tax collectors, and religious zealots. The first person to see Jesus and deliver the message of his resurrection is a formerly-demon-possessed woman who may or may not have been a prostitute. And before Jesus ascends into heaven, he puts those same fishermen, tax collectors, religious zealots, and prostitutes, and sinners in charge of his church.
The theme that jumps out to me from the book of Matthew is that it starts with the riff-raft and rejected people of society coming to God and it ends with those same people being sent out into the world with a new mission.
The Prophet Isaiah spoke of all nations being drawn to God’s messiah. I believe that we see this in the magi following the star to Jesus. From the very beginning, Jesus was drawing people in and sending them out into the world with a transformative message.
We too have been drawn to Jesus. Regardless of what has brought you here, know that you are loved and that you are needed. And no matter what you may be dealing with, God wants to use you to make his kingdom come, his will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.