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.
It seems to be widely accepted that the wise men rode camels as they followed the star in search for the one born King of the Jews. There is really no evidence for this, but when you think about it, it is rather obvious. These are, after all, wise men. And if you know nothing else about camels, you know that they can go for a long time without water. This would have been very important information for the wise men as they began their trip, because the wise men had heard that in Israel, there was noel (no well).
Today is Epiphany Sunday, which marks the end of the Christmas season in the church. Epiphany is usually celebrated on January 6, which is the twelfth day of Christmas. So if you ever hear someone complaining that their Jewish friends get 8 days of Hanukkah and they only have one day of Christmas, remind them that Christmas has traditionally be a twelve-day-long event. We start with Christmas day and end on Epiphany.
Epiphany is the celebration of the wise men’s arrival in Bethlehem where they worshipped the baby Jesus. I have no idea how they decided that these travelers arrived on January 6, and many scholars will say that they may not have got there until almost two years after Jesus’s birth. That’s okay, we really don’t know when Jesus was born either. The important thing is that we remember the birth of Jesus and the visitors who came to worship him.
I read this week about one strange way to remember this visit. Some traditions celebrate Epiphany by swimming in icy rivers and lakes. We are talking about churches in places like Siberia. Aren’t you glad that we celebrate with 12 drummers drumming around and a glass of wassail around here! Though it wouldn’t be too hard to find an icy place to swim this time of year.
On this Epiphany Sunday I want to look at the visitors who came to see Jesus soon after he was born. Who were they, where did they belong, and what did they believe.
When we look at the Christmas stories found in the Bible, we go to two different books: Matthew and Luke. Each of these books of the Bible tells the story a little different, offering various details and other snippets into the birth and early years of Jesus’s life. This doesn’t surprise me, as I’m sure I would tell the story of our children’s birth differently than my wife would. That doesn’t mean one of us is wrong, but that we emphasize different parts of the story.
One of the differences that we find is that each gospel tells the story of different visitors who came to see Jesus. Our text for this morning tells about the wise men who come from the East to offer gifts and worship the newborn king of the Jews. We will come back to this story shortly. Luke also describes visitors who come to visit the baby. We usually refer to them by their occupation: they were shepherds.
Shepherds have received a bit of a bad reputation over the last century or so, and I’m not sure that it is entirely accurate. Many people assume that they were thieves. There might have been thieving shepherds, but it wouldn’t be fair to assume that they were all thieves. Some claim that shepherds were despised, but we don’t have a lot of reason to believe this either. If shepherds were such terrible people, I would think that the Psalmist would hesitate to say “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Furthermore, God is described by Jesus as a shepherd who leaves behind the 99 to search for one lost sheep. Jesus even calls himself a shepherd, which seems like a strange thing to call yourself if all shepherds are thieves and are despised by others.
I’m just looking out for you and your reputation, farmers around the world.
Yet while it might be a stretch to call shepherds thieves and despised, they also weren’t the social elite of the time. Watching sheep by night for multiple nights in a row probably meant these folks didn’t bathe as often as some others. And we know that animals, and particularly what comes out of animals, can have a—how shall I put it—pungent fragrance. It stings the nostrils. The things that they touched, the work that they did, probably caused many shepherd to be ceremonially unclean. And we find from the writings of Aristotle some 300 years before the birth of Jesus that many considered shepherds to be lazy. Because really, how hard is it to look after a docile animal.
So while shepherds surely weren’t all despised thieves, they weren’t the most respected people in the world. And that is why it is surprising that they are invited to be the first non-parents to visit baby Jesus.
But what if the Jesus story had a different beginning? What if he was born in a big city, the capital city, in a castle among servants and laid in a shiny and new bassinet? First of all, the shepherds probably wouldn’t have been able to get past security. And if they did, they probably would have felt pretty awkward in such a luxurious setting. They are used to sleeping outside, and here’s this infant, sleeping in a fancy bed in a fancy room in a fancy house surrounded by fancy people.
But Jesus wasn’t born into that scenario. No, he was born in a little Podunk town, in an animal stable. And his bed was an animal feeding trough. These things would have been very familiar to the shepherds and their animal husbandry experiences. They might have even been familiar with the very stable where Jesus was born. Going to see Jesus in some ways probably felt quite comfortable and normal to the shepherds, while being quite new and exciting in other ways.
It almost seems as if God entered into this world in such a way so as to meet the shepherds where they were. There was something familiar and something novel all wrapped up into one.
But that’s Luke’s gospel. We are looking at Matthew today and this story of the three wise men. Or are they three kings? I think that it is amazing that of these four words that we use to describe the visitors in Matthew’s gospel, none of them are actually in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew never says that there are three, he never calls them “wise” or “kings,” and he never says that they are men.
Why do we call them wise men or kings? I think they probably were wise people; they found a baby in a manger using little more than a star. I have problems finding my car keys. When we come right down to it, we call them wise men because King James called them wise men in 1611.
Matthew uses the word “magi” to describe these visitors. We still call them magi sometimes today, and the NIV chooses to not translate this word and just calls them magi. But what do we know about magi outside of this story?
Magi actually has similar roots to our English word magic. These were magic men, and it isn’t their first appearance in the Bible. The Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, makes several references to the magi, such as in the books of Esther and Daniel. In one case, Daniel and some companions are captured by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and questioned during the Babylonian exile. In Daniel 1:20 we read, “and in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters (Greek magi) in his whole kingdom.”
And for a quick geographical review, can anyone tell me which way Babylon would have been from Israel? To the east. These are magi from the east.
In these stories, many of which are from the exilic period, we find the word “magi” translated as wise men. So it isn’t surprising that King James would simply call them wise men.
We also call them kings because it seems to fulfill several OT prophesies. For instance, Psalm 72 includes the line, “May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts.” And Isaiah 30 includes, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…and all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”
Were they kings? Perhaps. Were they wise men? Sure. But Matthew intentionally calls them magi, and I’m glad that the NIV leaves this word in its original language because Matthew isn’t trying to sanitize this encounter. These were magic men, they were astrologers who attempted to discern the future by looking at the stars, and likely members of a religious group known as Zoroastrianism.
Adherents to Zoroastrianism believe in two competing gods: one good and one evil, but each equal in power and strength. Furthermore, Zoroastrianism teaches that stars were angelic or heavenly beings, perhaps deceased relatives, who could reveal the things that would happen in the future. This is what the magi in the book of Daniel were doing, and this is what the magi in Matthew appear to be doing. They seem to be able to discern the events about Jesus’s birth by studying the stars. I don’t know how that works, and I’m going to guess that most of the time it didn’t. But in this case, it seems to work quite well.
Like the shepherd in Luke’s gospel, God uses something that these people were familiar with to lead them to Jesus. It has a kind of “Paul and the altar to the unknown God” feel to it. Following a star to find Jesus in some ways probably felt quite comfortable and normal to the magi, while being quite new and exciting in other ways.
I think these stories from the gospels of Luke and Matthew are very important to us today. Outsiders are the first to recognize Jesus and to worship him.
Over Christmas break we decided to go to Washington, DC to take in a few of the (free) museums and get a little culture for our children. One of the things that always impresses me about the DC area is the ethnic diversity. We didn’t have much of that in rural Ohio growing up, and I think that we were worse off for it. So we went to the American History Museum and the new African American Heritage Museum. I actually got to see a pair of pants worn by MC Hammer, now that’s high culture!
We also had a chance to enjoy some ethnic foods. We went to multicultural restaurant for breakfast one morning. It was called the International House…of Pancakes, or IHOP for short J. Okay, the IHOP isn’t actually what I think of when I think about ethnic foods, but the staff there sure was diverse. The man who seated us, the wait staff, and the cashier all appeared to be first-generation immigrants (based on their accents). Our waitress was clearly of Indian decent, wearing elements of culture under her uniform.
After all the pancakes, eggs, and sausage were consumed (don’t judge, we were on vacation!), the waitress brought us our check and said, “Have a Merry Christmas!” I replied, “You, too!”
I was immediately embarrassed. The woman, coming from India, was most likely a Hindu, and her apparel suggested as much as well. I wasn’t embarrassed because I wished her a Merry Christmas. And I sure don’t get caught up in the whole “Happy Holidays” vs. “Merry Christmas” debate. We aren’t saved by the well-wishes we exchange, and I don’t think saying a phrase that isn’t even in the Bible is going to lead people to follow Jesus. My embarrassment came from the fact after I had wished a Hindu Merry Christmas, I realized she knew more about my religion than I know about hers. I couldn’t even come up with the name of a single Hindu holiday. And it turns out that there are a lot of Hindu holidays, which isn’t that surprising when you consider that they have 330 million deities.
But I had read a book on a major Hindu holiday, and I was drawing a blank. I couldn’t come up with Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Diwali is one of the big ones, and is celebrated by several religions. I didn’t even care enough about that holiday to remember its name.
Here’s the thing, God didn’t tell the shepherds that they needed to go take a bath before they came to see Jesus. Nope, the dirty, smelly, ceremonially unclean people were told where to find the Messiah. And he was in a dirty, smelly, perhaps ceremonially unclean stable. God didn’t tell the Magi to first repent of their wicked ways. Nope, God used their practice of interpreting the future from the stars to lead them to Jesus. Because even though forbids astrology, God loves the astrologers more than he hates astrology.
I’ll be honest, Hinduism makes me uncomfortable. All of the statues of all of the deities stand in opposition to some of the most foundational teachings of the Ten Commandments. But like God, our love for people must be greater than anything that makes us uncomfortable about them.