A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
January 11, 2015
University Baptist Church
As you know, this is Epiphany Sunday. That means we sing the hymns about the Magi that we skipped at Christmas in our pursuit of liturgical correctness. It also means we remember the Magi and the thoughtful but impractical gifts that they brought to the holy family.
Let‘s face it, we don’t know much about the Magi. Matthew’s second chapter is the only time we see them.
We don’t know if they’re kings or not, despite any Christmas pageant you may have seen.
We don’t know their names despite any Opera you might have heard.
We don’t know where they came from exactly.
We don’t know if they started out looking for Jesus.
We don’t even know how many they were. Some say three, others twelve. They asked for directions, which means that there must have been women among the caravan.
We do know they were co-opted by Herod, like many wise people are by the Herods of the world.
We also know that they ignored Herod’s orders and followed in a long line of wise dissenters from Shiphrah and Puah to Jesus himself.
Theologian Bill Herzog says that the Magi were one of three things:
1. Magicians or frauds who practiced divination (although they are not ridiculed, as diviners are elsewhere in the Bible)
2. They could have been courtly priests who served the rulers of Persia. This would account for their traveling. They could have also been revolutionaries.
3. Or they could have been astrologers who read the heavens and advised rulers on their plans. A midrash on Exodus 1 from the Babylonian Talmud speaks of Pharaoh’s astrologers perceiving that the mother of the future redeemer of Israel is pregnant. Pharaoh orders all of the Hebrew boys drowned. Herod does the same thing 1300 years later.
The Magi didn’t advise Herod. The Magi informed Herod what they saw in the skies and then Herod advised them. And the Magi famously snubbed Herod. This did not make for good job security, or life insurance for that matter. They also listen to the directions from the Angels—they are warned in a dream to go home a different way.
I wonder why Herod didn’t pursue the Magi. Why take your wrath out on innocent children? There is no record that the slaughter actually happened outside of the Bible, but it’s not a stretch to imagine a particularly brutal leader being ruthless with people who can’t fight back. He killed defenseless children, further alienating himself from the Hebrew people.
The Magi were on a journey, like a lot of us. It was a journey where they encountered astrological oddities, got into the inner workings of the Herod’s meglomania. No wonder they got out of there fast. They dropped off their gifts to a young family, who were wondering what the fuss was about, but by now had gotten used to being surprised by strangers surrounding the baby. As Laura Justin put it in the hospital just after Peter’s birth, “modesty has gone out the window.”
Many of us went on journeys, even pilgrimages this last month. Some of us even went bearing gifts. The visits are always memorable, in a good way or a bad way. We see our family one year older, we visit exotic places, we celebrate a reunion, and some of us survive some sort of trauma. Amanda’s swim team just got back from a Florida training trip. She told me that when the team got lost on their way to practice, they adopted a mantra: “We’re not lost, we’re making memories.” All of that is oddly predictable. We know when we are on a journey, there are things that are beyond our control. We can’t control the flu virus. We can’t control our family members’ outburst, we can’t control the weather, as much as we’d like to. What we can control is our reaction to it all.
What we know from Matthew is that the Magi came to Bethlehem, and began stirring up some conversation among the people. I mean, it wasn’t uncommon to see Persians with their caravans, camels and curry. What was odd was their audacious questions. They came right out and said, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” The people didn’t know what to say. Some knew where Jesus was, but to be seen showing foreigners the child king would have been treason. Eventually, word got to Herod.
And Herod tried a sneaky move on these unsuspecting foreigners. “I too want to worship the child, let me know where he is and I’ll reward you handsomely.” The Magi were caught in a bind. They were on foreign soil and in the middle of a tiff with a scary king who wanted them to tell him about the whereabouts of his would-be successor. The Magi wanted to worship Jesus. Herod wanted to kill Jesus, for he feared the implications of the formerly voiceless having a voice. He feared the poor being empowered. He feared the truth being made known. He feared that he would not be able to wield so much power with this child.
Who is a threat to order these days? Who rouses the rabble? Who captures the imagination of the people and gets them to think of revolution? The Magi, being wealthy and scholarly, might have been the campaign funding committee, the foreign powers exerting their influence. I haven’t seen the film “Selma” yet, but I’m looking forward to it. Especially in the aftermath of the protests over the last few months around continued race-based bias and its deadly consequences.
The Magi were right about the star and they were right about Herod. But the star didn’t give them directions to the stable. It gave them a general direction to follow. I can imagine the gossip. “Did you see that caravan of Persians? I hear they were talking to Herod. I wonder what they want?” In order for them to have found the holy family, they must have had some help. But to help them was to risk Herod’s wrath or that of his military lackeys.
The Magi could have been sent to the wrong house. Offered gifts to a child named Brian instead of Jesus. That would be a good premise for a movie, come to think of it.
But someone gave them the right directions. Maybe it was the shepherds. Jesus was a threat and even the king knew it. It’s a different scene from Christmas Eve. The holy family is not in a stable, but a house. At least some people knew who they were. Herod went on a killing spree to wipe out any trace of the holy family. Jesus and his parents had already fled to Egypt. Did you notice that the last time Egypt is mentioned as a place to live, the innocent children of Egypt are slaughtered by God? This is a reversal, one of so many in scripture—taking an old story and reworking it and maybe even redeeming it a bit.
Maybe what happened is that they had an epiphany: a light that has awakened in them a sense of purpose, a direction as clear as a star on a winter’s night. An epiphany is not something to be hidden. It’s something to be shared, tested with other people. It’s also meant to inspire us, to enliven us and to help us imagine something new.
There was an epiphany this week in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Paris. We have realized that Je Suis Charlie. We are all people who have suffered at the hands of brutality. For when one of us suffer, we all suffer. We have had an epiphany that we can denigrate terroristic actions. An epiphany that dismissing a religion is as bad as blaming a race for all of the problems of the world. It’s the worst kind of scapegoating. We need to be better than that. How about that kind of epiphany? This weekend, there was an awful massacre in Nigeria at the bloody hands of Boko Haram. I searched the Star Tribune this morning for news about it, but there was nothing in the front section and only a small reference in the Opion page. How’s that for an epiphany?
We have the epiphany that says that while black lives matter, all lives matter, too. And we need to get serious about creating a beloved community among all of God’s people.
I imagine the Magi had a lot to consider. I bet they began their own independent commission on miraculous events and messianic epiphanies. And then the lights turned on. The people who walked in darkness saw a great light said the prophet. The people saw through the trickery of the Herods and Quiriniuses. They saw a new set of possibilities out there. They convinced the Magi about what was really going on. Now the international community saw through Herod’s manipulation and brutality. And they began to do things differently. They realized that there was a new kid in town and that the old ways of might makes right were no longer going to fly.
Matthew ends his gospel with an admonition to go in to all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. So it’s no accident that the first people to believe and worship Jesus, according to Matthew, were wise people from a different country. Foreigners. Outsiders. People of a different race, class and religion. And the first thing they did after worshipping was to ignore Herod’s orders. There was a higher authority to which they were beholden. Matthew says that the Magi didn’t return to Pharaoh, I mean, Herod. They went home another way. They got their news from another source—a source that really revealed the truth.
Wherever they came from and wherever they were going, they stopped along the way and shifted their attention to Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Their gifts, their traveling tariffs, took on new meaning. Gold came to represent Jesus’ royalty. Frankincense came to represent his divinity. Myrrh signified his humanity.
It was like an epiphany. The Bible doesn’t say it, but I bet the Magi returned to Persia with a deeper understanding of God’s role in the world. I bet they were much less inclined to support Herod’s world-dominating schemes. I’d love to uncover the lost gospel of the Magi. What might it tell of what they brought with them to Persia?
On New Years, many of us made resolutions to do something different in the coming year. We might want to lose weight, finish a degree, be more intentional about our relationships, cut out the BS from our lives, recommit ourselves to things that matter, make our mark in our part of the world. All are worthy goals. All need more action than just a day and a decision. May we have an epiphany and like the Magi set our priotities on life-enhancing endeavors.
May our New Year’s resolutions bring us and the world more peace, more understanding, more guts, more audacity, more connection to the One who makes all things new—the real king, the one really worth celebrating. May we, in the coming year, share our gifts as the Magi did--in defiance of all that is wrong with the world and in hope for all that is right. And through it all, may we embrace the light of the world this day, which we need so much.