Matthew 2:1-12, with Isaiah 60:1-6 and Micah 5: 1-5
The magi appear on the Christmas cards alongside the shepherds, but only Matthew has the magi and only Luke has the shepherds.
A closer look at Matthew’s story reveals that the story is more like a symbolic painting than a verbal photograph of historical events.
Let’s look for the learning and insights set up by Matthew.
First it is not difficult to recognise the distinctive contours and plots:
- Israel went down to Egypt and returned; so did Jesus.
- Moses could have died when an evil Pharoah sought to kill all Hebrew infants; Jesus escaped Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.
But then Who came to Jerusalem? Who were the Magi?
The description of people as Magi could have had at least two meanings, but none of them would endear them to a devout Jew.
- The wise man’s special knowledge comes from reading the stars or from other mystical means of divination that are inaccessible to ordinary people. The use of any form of divination, astrological or otherwise had long been forbidden to the Israelites, as a thing abhorrent to the Lord.
- The more specific meaning of the word “mago” referred to a member of the Persian priestly caste, the rulers and practitioners of the distinctive religions of Babylon. They were the speakers of the sacred words at the pagan sacrifices and the interpreters of special signs associated with the pagan cult. The Jewish attitude to the priests of pagan religious cults was very negative. The term referred to a magician or sorcerer, or even a deceiver.
Whichever of these meanings they were well understood by Matthew’s readers and particularly the high Priests. It would have aroused immediate suspicion and deep distrust in their minds.
In short Magi were people whose activities were repeatedly condemned and prohibited throughout the scriptures and were complete anathema to the people of Israel.
Yet here is the rub from Matthew…it was these very Magi from the East who brought to the Jewish authority news of Jesus’ birth!
The birth was noticed…expected by outsiders… they had read Isaiah 60 and awaited its advent.
The outsider is bearing witness to God’s actions and God’s calling.
We see it many times in the Bible where it is the outsider…the least expected who bears wit ness to the truth that God has for us….
Perhaps finally the message can hardly be missed:
…the best of the world’s wisdom came and acknowledged the Christ.
2. A new angle on the Three Wise Men
Like Matthew, the wise men know about Isaiah 60. They know they are to go to Jerusalem and to take rare spices, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Most important, they know that they will find the new king of all peace and prosperity. But when Herod (the current king in Jerusalem) hears of these plans, he is frightened. A new king is a threat to the old king and the old order. ( Walter Brueggemann “Off by Nine Miles”)
Then a strange thing happens. In his panic, Herod arranges a consultation with the leading Old Testament scholars, and says to them, “Tell me about Isaiah 60. What is all this business about camels and gold and frankincense and myrrh?” The scholars tell him: You have the wrong text. And the wise men outside your window are using the wrong text. Isaiah 60 will mislead you because it suggests that Jerusalem will prosper and have great urban wealth and be restored as the centre of the global economy. In that scenario, the urban elites can recover their former power and prestige and nothing will really change.
Herod does not like that verdict and asks, defiantly, “Well, do you have a better text?” The scholars are afraid of the angry king, but tell him, with much trepidation, that the right text is Micah 5:2-4:
But you, O Bethlehem, David’s country, the runt of the litter – From you will come the leader who will shepherd-rule Israel. He’ll be no upstart, no pretender. His family tree is ancient and distinguished.”(The Message).
This is the voice of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed with high towers and great arenas, banks and urban achievements. It anticipates a different future, as yet unaccomplished, that will organize the peasant land in resistance to imperial threat. Micah anticipates a leader who will bring well-being to his people, not by great political ambition, but by attentiveness to the folks on the ground.
Herod tells the Eastern intellectuals the truth, and the rest is history. They head for Bethlehem, a rural place, dusty, unnoticed and unpretentious. It is, however, the proper milieu for the birth of the One who will offer an alternative to the arrogant learning of intellectuals and the arrogant power of urban rulers.
The story of the Three Wise Men sets up our options.
- We can choose a “return to normalcy” in a triumphalist mode, a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it its own seeds of destruction.
- · Or we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual pretensions. We can receive life given in vulnerability. A life lived around a baby with no credentials.
Unpacking the story offers us the opportunity to let the vulnerability of Micah 5 and the truths of Micah 6:8 disrupt the self-congratulation of Isaiah 60. Most of us are looking in the wrong place. We are now invited to travel those hard, demanding miles away from self-sufficiency. The first day of this New Year is a good time to take the journey. The way beyond is not about security and prosperity but about vulnerability, neighbourliness, justice, compassion, generosity, a modest future with spears turned into pruning-hooks and swords into plough-shears.
This old story of the Three Wise Men has connections also to those passages in the Old Testament which speak of the nations coming together in peace, to beat their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning-hooks and to share in a great feast and learn the law of God.
The wise men, and the eager nations ready for an alternative, made the trip. It would be ironic if the “outsiders” among us made that move and we who are God’s own people resisted.
3. So what star are we following…?
What story do we expect to find under the star we are following?
- What is our guiding star for 2012?
- How do we come as we follow our star ?
- What gifts do we bring …?
- · ….that depends
- On the star we are following!
- On what are we seeking…?
- On what we expect…?
If we can see ourselves in an image of us following a star…what is the story of God in our world, nation, city, community, our life, that we seek or we expect to find.
If you can imagine and feel yourself in a dream or in this story… what sits under the star you are following?
What is your hope for?
- Relationship wellbeing
- Social Justice
- Compassionate society
- Prosperous nation
What the wise men found was a child in a manger in a dusty, unimportant village 14kms outside the Jewish capital. Not perhaps what they were looking for…perhaps they had been looking for the birth of a leader of the new powerful reconstructed Jerusalem…the future influence in the region…maybe to rise up against the Romans…but instead they found a stable, a manger, and a child.
When we seek out God in our lives what are we looking for?
If we see Christ in the child we will surely find Emmanuel …God with us. God pitching tent with us.
In that we can expect to find a way to be in an enduring relationship with the living God.
The way beyond is for some of us not about security and prosperity but about vulnerability, neighbourliness, justice, compassion, generosity, a modest future with spears turned into pruning-hooks and swords into plough-shears.
In ways that will hold our life together in rich and unexpected ways…
…In ways where God travels with us and lives with us though all of life.
As Charles Ringma writes: our spirituality does not embrace only an aspect of life…but all of it, all of life’s experiences become the testing ground for linking faith and practice. Thus, in being, living, doing, praying, serving, risking, loving, and participating, we are weaving a pattern for understanding our spirituality…our relationship with the living God.
4. What gifts do we bring?
So as we come before the crib…as did the Wise Men..
What gifts do we bring.
What gifts do we bring to draw near the Living, loving God visited by the Three Wise Men?
A clue from our first hymn:
Fear not to enter his courts
in the slenderness
of the poor wealth
you would reckon as thine:
Truth in its beauty
and love in its tenderness,
These are the offerings
to lay on his shrine.
So think what gifts you bring…self, talents, time, money, possessions…that’s just too simple and maybe just too trite…but what else do we have?
But I wonder…in giving gifts most of us think about what the other person might enjoy and need and may hint or tell us…
I wonder if as we enter the new year and ponder our relationship with God that we might listen, think, imagine what God might want, need, in fact enjoy of the gifts we could bring this year….
We have evidence that God seeks a loving relationship with us. One of trust , honesty, healthy dependence, willingness to wait and to listen.
Each of us will be different, but the gift I believe God seeks most of all is our whole self.
The image of the wise men from the east, kneeling before the Christ child, offering their gifts, has been an inspiring symbol of worship for countless generations.
When we, as it were, kneel upon it, we place ourselves in the story. It becomes our story.
So let it be that for us, as we sing…
Come as you are, That’s how I want you
Come as you are, Feel quite at home.
Close to my heart, Loved and forgiven
Come as you are, Why stand alone.