Scripture Readings: Matthew 2:1-12, Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12
A man was traveling through the South during Christmastime. Maybe he was even traveling through somewhere like Natchez,Mississippi, a town Graham and Barbara Hicks know well. As he passed the local courthouse, he saw a wonderful nativity scene nearby. Mary and Joseph, baby Jesus, the shepherds, and the wise men were all in their places. But later, when he stopped for coffee at the corner diner, the man couldn’t help but ask a question. “I really enjoyed the Nativity at the courthouse,” he said to his waiter. “But why are the wise men dressed up like firemen?” The waiter shook his head in exasperation. “Don’t ya’ heathen Yankees read the Bible? It says… ‘they came from a fire [a-fahr].’”
Forgive me for telling you such a corny joke this early in the New Year. As you might guess, I first heard it told by Keith! But I couldn’t help it. We are talking about the magi, or wise men, this morning, having read scriptures set for Epiphany, the feast the church celebrates on Jan. 6th. In our country, after New Years, people get back to the everyday routines of work and school, and so Epiphany is often an afterthought, but elsewhere in the world, Epiphany is a great feast, when the church honors the journey of the magi to pay homage to the Christ child. In fact, in some places, celebrating the arrival of the magi generates more excitement than Christmas day. Our family has a collection of nativity scenes, several from Latin America, and this year, we noticed that all of them feature the magibut none of them include shepherds!
I think we are especially fascinated with the magi. One reason is that they did, indeed, come from “afar,” traveling from somewhere in the East, the exotic “Orient.” Commentators like to speculate on who they might have been and others like to theorize about the enigma of the star they followed.I think we are also intrigued by the richness of their gifts, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Here’s how one author puts it:
“The Magi fascinate us also because they do not fit into this tiny stage of hill village and humble stable. Their sophistication clashes with this simplicity, their obvious power sits uneasily beside the vulnerability of child and family. They are urban in a rural world, affluent in the midst of poverty, cosmopolitan amid the provincial.”[i]
Now, this gospel reading from Matthew is set beside our other readingsbecause the presence of these strangers at the stable seemed a fulfillment of prophecy. “Arise, shine, for your light has come!” Isaiah’s vision was given originally for the people of Jerusalem, newly returned from exile, beleaguered with the task of rebuilding the Holy City. Don’t give up, he tells them, because a time will come when Jerusalem shall be the radiant center of the world, and foreigners will stream in bearing gifts: “A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah…They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.” It is a vision of global proportions.
For the early Christians, the wise men demonstrated that the One who had been born in a stable was not just good news for a “small land and a marginal people,” but for the whole world.[ii] For Paul, it is an astonishing and gracious mystery that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Perhaps the wise men are the very first Gentiles to learn that in Jesus Christ, the good news of God’s love is poured out for all humanity, both near and from afar.
Now while these are great reasons to celebrate the magi, let us not allow their exotic travel and kingly gifts to distract us from their importance for our daily lives of faith. For these magi, whoever they were in their home-country, do turn out to be “wise men.” Another one of those Christian slogans you sometimes see is “Wise men still seek Him.” And I think that we need to admire, not their otherness nor their wealth, but their deep wisdom. They perceived their deep need to seek out the One to whom they could give themselves without reservation; and they were willing to make the journey to find Him, no matter what might happen.
Forgive me another pun, but, since we know they were from the East, you could say they were willing to be “dis-Oriented.” Setting out with a star and ancient prophecies as guides, the magi show up in Jerusalem, based, perhaps, on scriptures like Isaiah 60, which said the royal and holy city, would be the center. But when they arrive at Herod’s court, the presumptive location for a “new king” to be born, they are set in an entirely different direction by Herod’s scholars.
They are “off by nine miles,” as Walter Brueggemann puts it; rather than Jerusalem, with “its high towers and great arenas, banks and urban achievements,” the wise men are pointed toward Bethlehem, “a rural place, dusty, unnoticed and unpretentious.”[iii] And here is the amazing thing about the magi: they don’t protest or resist the change of plans, but they head for Bethlehem. They are willing to go wherever they need to go to meet God, and they are willing to be reoriented from all the distractions of wealth and power to the true center of the universe, which turns out to be a “baby with no credentials,” cradled in the poverty of the manger.[iv]
My friends, this is the journey of faith each of us pursues throughout our lifetimes, allowing God to disorient and reorient us so that we can arrive at the place where we can truly meet God face to face. But in the smaller picture, it is also the journey we make every week when we show up to this place of worship: every one of us journeys from “afar,” from all the distractions, challenges and burdens of our daily lives, in order to rejoice and pay homage to the only One worthy of it. It constantly surprises us to find that One in a manger, in a stable, on a cross, or–by the power of the Spirit—inhabiting the lives of our fellow worshippers. And yet, every time we show up, we demonstrate our kinship with those magi, who were willing to do what it takes to meet God.
And there is another surprise in their story—and ours—if we listen closely. Maybe our Southern friends were onto something, dressing the wise men in fireman’s gear. For while we say that they came from “a-fahr,” what actually happened is that they went to a fire. They went to the fire. When that star stopped over that stable in Bethlehem, the magi were overwhelmed with joy, because they knew a greater light resided inside. Upon entering, they beheld the light of life, the light that shines in the darkness, the glory of the Lord. In the presence of that light, which revealed everything about their lives, what they had been and what they could become, they could only stop, kneel, and pay homage.
It’s a strange phrase—“pay homage.” We don’t use it much in daily speech in a representational democracy. One commentator notes that Greek word translated “paying homage,” was “commonly used to describe the custom of prostrating oneself at the feet of a king. The physical posture dramatically expresses the idea of giving not just gifts, but our entire selves to Christ.”[v] And paying homage is the impetus, focus, and conclusion of the story: The magi set out on their journey, hoping to find the One worthy to receive, not just their rich gifts, but their very lives.
The Insko family gifted us with a beautiful children’s book called The Last Straw. Emily actually read it to our children some weeks ago during Sunday school. It is about an old camel named Hoshmakaka, who is chosen by the wise men to carry gifts to the baby king. Though he boasts to the younger camels that he is “as strong as ten horses,” he is secretly plagued by sciatica and gout. Along the journey, he is given the burdens of many other gifts, and he complains fiercely to himself as he struggles to appear strong. But the last gift he is charged to carry, a thin piece of straw, does him in. As he arrives at the manger, his knees buckle, and he bows down in front of the baby king despite himself. He feels foolish and worries what others will say, and when the wise men bow down, too, they are mocking him. But then a tiny hand reaches out from the manger to touch him, and the book says, “His pain seemed to disappear…” “From that time on there was no burden, great or small, that Hoshmakaka would not gladly carry.”[vi]
What Hoshmakaka learns is what the wise men already know: that kneeling before Jesus Christ, the true king of the universe and of our lives, does not debase us. Rather, as if we were kneeling around a fire in a dark night, the glory of God in Jesus Christ rises upon us. Beholding him for who he is—as Irenaeus once said, “the glory of humanity fully alive”—we begin to glow ourselves, rejoicing, because in kneeling before him, giving the best of our gifts, our very selves and our faithful service, we too become fully alive.[vii]
My friends, as we embark anew upon our journeys of faith in this new year, may God make us willing to go wherever we need to go, to bear whatever gifts we are called to share, to change course when a new path appears, and to rejoice in arriving to pay homage in that place where God’s love reaches out with a tiny or trembling hand, setting our very lives aglow.
All glory be to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
[i] Herbert O’Driscoll, “Kingly Presence,” http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2936 Her
[ii] Ibid, Herbert O’Driscoll.
[iii] Walter Brueggemann, “Off by Nine Miles,” http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2103
[iv] Ibid, Walter Brueggemann.
[v] Thomas H. Troeger “Homiletical Perspective” on Matt. 2:1-12. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol.1 David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010, 213-217.
[vi] Fredrick H. Thury, author, and Vlasta van Kampen, illustrator. The Last Straw, Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge, 2009.
[vii] Influenced here by both Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective” on Isaiah 60:1-6, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol.1 David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010, 199, and Herbert O’Driscoll, as above.