Imagine being one of the magi, off in Persia someplace, maybe what is now modern-day Iraq or Iran. What would prompt you to leave everything you know, pack up your belongings, say goodbye to your family for who knows how long, and set off on a dangerous pilgrimage across the desert to find a new king of someone else’s people? What are you so longing for? What is the promise of that star that makes the trip worth it? What kind of wisdom or foolishness or humility or faith would be necessary?
Let us set aside, as we often do, the question of whether this visit actually happened or not—whether it is “true” in a historical sense—and let us look rather at what truths this story may hold for us here today. What star do we follow to find God in our midst? What pilgrimages are we on, and why? How does our faith guide us? What do we hope to find? And what gifts do we bear for that Christ child?
So here we go, diving into the story. These magi off in some eastern land notice this star and decide to follow it to find a new king. There were plenty of old kings already in place—why go in search of a new one? Who looks for a new king unless they are seeking a new way of ruling? And who seeks a new way of ruling unless the old ways are corrupt and oppressive? So perhaps we can understand this story as being about seeking relief from oppression, liberation from corrupt systems and rulers. You seek a new king to overthrow the old one and start fresh. You seek a new king to bring justice and peace.
Off they go, these magi, on a journey across the desert that takes weeks or months or perhaps even longer. The star leads to Israel, and the logical place to seek a new king would be in the palace, because often the new king is born as the son to the old king, in this case, Herod. They knock on the palace door and explain their business. Herod is, shall we say, surprised to hear that there is a new king of the Jews. “Nope, no new king here,” he says, but naturally he has a personal interest in this matter. He sends his scribes scrambling through scripture to find prophesies about where such a new king might be born.
“Bethlehem,” say the scribes, after consulting Micah [and where else?]. “Ah, Bethlehem,” says Herod to the magi. “Little village nine miles down the road. You can’t miss it. Tell me who you find, and I’ll come pay tribute as well.” Seems so congenial and helpful, that Herod. But perhaps the magi begin to sense their mistake in consulting him.
Off they go again, another nine miles down the road, from Jerusalem, the bustling capitol full of power and importance, to Bethlehem, a quiet village full of poor nobodies. They find the house, find the family, and with great joy offer their gifts.
Freeze that frame in your head for a moment, and let’s talk about Matthew’s version of the birth story compared with Luke’s. In Luke we get an angel visiting Mary, Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth and bursting forth with the Magnificat praising God. We get the census, we get Mary and Joseph traveling from Galilee to Bethlehem, no room at the inn. We get the stable, and shepherds out in the fields visited by angels who bring good news to all.
In Matthew, we don’t get any of that. Instead, we have Joseph’s point of view, Joseph contemplating a quiet divorce when his fiancée turns up pregnant by someone else, Joseph told in a dream to go ahead and marry Mary. Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem, so the magi are coming to their house, not to a stable. And after the magi leave, Joseph is warned, again in a dream, to get out of town, so we get the flight into Egypt. Sure enough, Herod’s soldiers swoop into Bethlehem and slaughter all the male babies.
Matthew sees Jesus as the new Moses. Recall that in Egypt, Pharaoh had commanded the Israelite midwives to kill all the boy babies, but Moses was put into a basket in the bulrushes and saved. Jesus and Moses escape the slaughter of the male babies. Moses is called out of Egypt to save his people from oppression and lead them to freedom. Jesus is called out of Egypt to save all people from oppression and lead them to freedom. Moses goes up Mt Sinai and brings the Ten Commandments. Jesus goes up on a mountain and brings the new commandments, also known as the Sermon on the Mount. There are lots of parallels between the Gospel of Matthew and the Exodus story. Jesus is the new Moses, the new king or leader of the Jews, here to upset the old pharaoh or king, in this case, Herod.
Okay, back to our freeze-frame of the magi offering their gifts to the new king of the Jews. These strangers show up on Mary and Joseph’s doorstep to worship their little boy, and they present these fabulous gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Perhaps you’ve heard the joke: What would have happened if it had been three Wise Women instead of three Wise Men?
They would have asked directions,
arrived on time,
helped deliver the baby,
cleaned the stable,
made a casserole,
and brought practical gifts.
Of course, the magi did ask for directions—that was part of the problem. But why give such crazy gifts to a little boy? If we can step away from the literal for a moment and look at these gifts more as having metaphorical meaning, we can interpret them this way:
What might it mean that foreign sages make the trip to worship Jesus in a little backwater village? I suggest that this new king of the Jews is actually here for everyone, not just the Jews. We read in Isaiah 60 about dreams of such a time:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of God has risen upon you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of God. [Isaiah 60:1, 3, 6.]
This Jesus comes as an incarnation of God, to rule or lead us all in building the realm of God, where all will experience freedom from oppression, where all will live with justice and peace.
Jesus’ message is for everyone, not just the Jews. Jesus leads us to God’s love and justice. How do we get there? By any road and every road. By whatever road you come, you can find God. Through scripture—God is there. Through nature—God is there: in a star, in a leaf, all around us. And we find that holy presence in God incarnate in human flesh—in Jesus, and in each other. In the Other. Remember it is later in this gospel, Matthew, that Jesus says, “Just as you did [a good deed] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” [Matthew 25:40.] Well here he is, in many ways “the least of these”—God incarnate as a poor, vulnerable, baby.
What star do you follow to find God? Imagine that star leading you across borders, past palaces and other seats of power, until finally you arrive at the home of a poor Black family in Haiti? Or a slum in Kolkata, India? Or to an immigrant couple and their baby girl in detention in Tacoma?
Wise men give their time, talents, and treasures to this poor little boy with great joy. They remind us that God calls us to do no less: to seek God with everything we have, and to share with great joy, even among strangers, for the Divine is in all of them, even as it is in us.
This is a God of justice, mercy, love. No wonder Herod is nervous: he follows none of those. He is a king of great insecurity, meanness, greed, paranoia, and wealth. The magi are sticking their fingers in the eye of Roman imperial power and Herod, the puppet king of the Jews. The magi’s actions are revolutionary, bold, and dangerous.
So what does the magi’s journey look like today? How can we walk through the desert to follow that star to God? How do we put feet on the ground? Throughout January and February we will be exploring a variety of justice issues as a congregation.
Perhaps all this leaves you a little breathless and overwhelmed. So many issues! But we will make the journey together. I hope you will show up to as many of these events as you can, to increase our collective awareness of the oppression and suffering in our communities and around the world, and to heighten our empowerment to take action. Like the magi, we can bring our time, talent, and our very best treasures to our God and do our part to build the new realm.
There are lots of bright lights and glittery objects to attract our attention in today’s world, to make false promises of easy fixes. Let’s keep our eyes focused on the one true star, the divine light that leads the way to a new realm, a new era of love and justice for all. I will see you on that journey. Amen.