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 your 2017 is off to a great start. We stumbled through the end of 2016, with more celebrity deaths coming one after another. Singer George Michael died on Christmas day, and one of my first crushes, Carrie Fisher—aka Princess Leia—died two days later. And the next day, Carrie Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds passed away. Happy Holidays, right?
Sonya, the children, and I traveled to Ohio on Monday, the day after Christmas, to celebrate with my family. So we made a George Michael station on Pandora to listen to as we traveled. It turns out that save for a few songs, 80’s music was really…bad. But things just went downhill when we got to Ohio. That evening, Hadley came down with a double ear infection, which kept three of us awake much of the night. Tuesday evening, just before midnight, the flu started working its way through our family, and we all experienced symptoms at some level through Wednesday. Thursday was my birthday, and we were all starting to feel a bit better. Then we get a call from the nursing home saying that my grandfather was unresponsive and would be transported to the hospital. But he responded well to some antibiotics and fluids, and is interacting with people again.
So here’s to 2017!
2016, particularly the last week of 2016, wasn’t what many of us were hoping for or expecting. There were a few surprises along the way. Sometimes we are surprised with bad things, but other times really good things surprise us as well. We naturally go through life with expectations. We expect to wake up and be healthy. We expect that our childhood crushes will be around for a few more years. We expect that we will meet God in the same way and in the same places and in the same songs. But sometimes, the unexpected happens, and that can be a good thing.
Again today we find a familiar passage. And we know what happens during this story; many of us even have a nativity scene (or three in our case) on our mantles at home depicting this event. We know that Jesus was born in a stable, placed in a manger, and then the shepherds show up. The three wise men come just as soon as the angles are done singing Silent Night.
My, have we ever tamed this story! This is a beautifully subversive story, turning everything that we expect upside down…in a good way. Just think for a second about who are the first visitors of the baby Jesus listed in our Bibles. Luke tells us that the shepherds arrive pretty soon after Jesus’s birth. As I’ve said before, these were despised, dirty, untrustworthy people. Some even go so far as to say that their occupation would have made them ceremonially unclean, and therefore unable to worship at the temple. But while they can’t worship at the temple, they can go to a stable to worship a baby born in a manger.
The second group of visitors are found in today’s passage from Matthew 2. We sometimes call these visitors “Wise Men,” because that is how the King James Version translates the Greek word “magos.” King James calls the magos Wise Men because, well, what’s a magos? The NIV and other translations simply use the plural version of magos, which we anglicize a bit to make the word Magi. We sometimes call them kings, based on the prophesy from Isaiah 60, which says that “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (v.3) And picking up again in verse 6, “bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”
While the shepherds were likely Jewish, even though unclean Jews, the Magi were not. They were sorcerers. They were astrologers. These were practices explicitly condemned in the Hebrew Bible in places like Deuteronomy 18:10 and Leviticus 19:26.
We don’t know how many Magi came to visit Jesus in Bethlehem; we often say three because it matches the number of gifts given: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It is possible that a fourth Magi got there and said, “What, nobody said anything about gifts!” We don’t know how many that there were, and we don’t know when they arrived. It could have been anywhere from Jesus’s birthday up to two years later. Remember, in the passage that follows this one, Herod kills all male children in Bethlehem around the age of two and down. This was based on when the Magi told him the star had appeared.
What really matters is that these two groups of visitors, the first visitors recorded as coming to see Jesus, couldn’t have come worship him in the temple in Jerusalem. But they were able to bow before him in Bethlehem.
From the beginning, Jesus defied expectations. The king of the Jews should be born in the center of Judaism, in Jerusalem! He should be welcomed with fanfare, ceremonies, fine clothes, and at least a real crib. He should be blessed by the High Priest, King Herod should bow before him. But instead, he is born in a little town outside of Jerusalem in a stable. He is laid in a manger, and his first visitors are outsiders. But notice, they are both lower and upper class outsiders!
As we make our trips to and from Ohio, we always are on the lookout for landmarks. There are things that help us “guess-timate” our travel time and distance covered. We travel 64 west, so we spend a little more than 1 hour driving before we exit Virginia. If you drive that way, you may be familiar with the exciting landmark that informs you when you have passed from Virginia into West Virginia. It’s a sign. That’s it, you get a sign. When we cross from West Virginia into Ohio, we cross the Ohio River, which is a decent-sized river. That one’s a little more obvious. We look for the golden dome of the capital in Wheeling, WV, because that is about ½ way.
Some of these landmarks are man-made, others are naturally-occurring. Regardless, these landmarks are really boundaries. This side is Virginia, this is West Virginia. This is the first half of the trip, this is the second. This is Mountaineer territory, this is Buckeye territory. These people are Yankees. These are Southerners.
Boundaries, divisions, and lines aren’t always a bad thing. They can be helpful when you have anxious kids in the back seat of the car; they can be useful when you are trying to differentiate between one person’s property and another’s. God even makes some boundaries, both in the physical world and in the ethical world. Boundaries are not in and of themselves bad things. The reminder that I see in our text for this morning is that God is bigger than our boundaries.
Here’s just a few of the boundaries I see that are broken down in this story. The first is geographical. Again, Jerusalem is the hub of all Jewish activities. The word “Jew” is actually derived from the name Jerusalem! The Temple was in Jerusalem. King Herod had a palace in Jerusalem. Even the Magi assumed that Jesus would be born in Jerusalem, stopping there first on their journey to find the king. If it wasn’t for Jesus being born there, we probably wouldn’t give any attention to this little town just outside of Jerusalem.
So why does this matter? With a city comes a certain social status. Recall that when Jesus is calling his disciples, one man, Philip, approaches another man, Nathaniel, and says, We have found the one who the prophets told us about, Jesus from Nazareth! Nathaniel responds, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Many of the disciples were from a fishing region known as Galilee. That wasn’t a badge of honor that they wore, declaring to the world, “I’m from Galilee.” It’s like saying I’m from the slums. I’m from the projects. I’m from a part of the world known for its poverty.
Not only is Jesus born in a non-Jerusalem city, the Magi come from “the east,” a non-Jewish territory. It appears that God isn’t limited to calling people from one city. God overcomes geographical boundaries.
God doesn’t care where you come from, even if we put a high price on such things. God doesn’t care if you are from Harrisonburg or Staunton, Northern Virginia or Appalachia. The mountains may divide us up culturally and geographically, but God is bigger.
The second boundary that I find in this story is political. We can’t avoid it, King Herod is front and center in this story. When the Magi come to him and inquire about the birth of the King of the Jews, what does Herod do? He lies! After consulting with some scholars, he sends the Magi to Bethlehem and tells them to report back to him what they find so that he may go worship the child as well. We later find out that Herod’s motivation for finding the child was to eliminate the competition.
When you think about it, this story is almost satirical. It mocks Herod by revealing his fears. Here is Herod, the supposed king of the Jewish people. He has soldiers, henchmen, and other powerful men and women at his disposal.
And he is afraid of a baby. Goochi, goochi, goo!
The Magi, guests in the Jewish territory, straight-up defy an order from the king because they know who the real king is. And the real king isn’t limited to boundaries like the boarders of a country, jurisdictions, or the likes. And the real king isn’t worried about his power being taken from him. In fact, the real king lays down his power for the sake of his people.
I saved the most controversial one for last. God is bigger than our religious boundaries. Magi, sorcerers, astrologers, are among the first to recognize Jesus as king. While one Jew is plotting to kill Jesus, the Magi are worshipping him. And here’s the real kicker, God uses the pagan ways of the Magi to lead them to Jesus. A part of the religious system, which again, is condemned in the Hebrew Scripture, is the telling of the future based on the stars. Yet God uses a start to lead them to Jesus.
I’m not saying that all religions are the same. I don’t even think you could say that all Christian denominations essentially believe the same thing. But remember, God didn’t divide us up by religions or denominations. That’s something we did.
I was baptized as an adult by sprinkling. My friends over at the Church of the Brethren say baptism needs to be by immersion, three times forward. Others baptize backwards, symbolizing death and resurrection. I don’t want to say that none of this matters, but God is bigger than our religious practices. Again, these divisions can be helpful, but you better believe that God is bigger.
I believe that today’s text shows that God is bigger than our religious systems. When you have a bunch of Magi, not Jews, showing up in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem, to worship the king of the Jews, born in a stable, not a castle, you begin to see that God is bigger than our religious expectations. So who is right? The Baptists, the Methodists, the Anglicans? Obviously, it’s the Mennonites! I don’t think anyone gets God just right. To think we did would be blasphemy.
I don’t care what you call yourself. I don’t care with which denomination you align. What matters is that you are being drawn in closer and closer to Jesus. Just as the God drew the Magi in with a star, God can use things we wouldn’t even consider to bring us to Jesus. God is bigger than our religious affiliations.
So I come back to expectations. What are your expectations for 2017? I expect more beloved people will die, more people will get sick. But more babies will be born, more people will follow Christ. Christianity will continue to grow, if not in North America, it will grow in Africa. Christ’s message of love and reconciliation will spread through Islamic Syria and Hindu India. God will reign in Democratic America and Communist China. Because God is bigger than our boundaries.