Isaiah 60:1-6 — Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 — Ephesians 2:1-12 — Matthew 2:1-12
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2:12)
Although the story of the wise men appears only in this very brief text from Matthew, it is certainly one of the most recognizable and beloved stories in all the New Testament. Now, I have to tell you that I have no trouble believing the angel’s announcement to the shepherds or the miracle stories of Jesus or any of the other texts that stretch the imagination, but thisone – this story of magi from the East – makes no sense whatsoever!
I mean, here are these people – maybe one, maybe three, maybe a dozen, maybe men, maybe women…who knows? – who supposedly followed a star in the sky for hundreds, maybe thousands of miles, but when they’re almost there, almost to where the tail of the star rests, they have to stop and ask for directions? And they don’t have the good sense on their own to be just a tiny bit suspicious of this king, Herod, who had something of a reputation for being a narcissistic bully that surely they must have thought something was up when he said to come back to him with the child’s location, but instead had to be warned about that in a dream? And seriously, who brings burial spices and gold to a baby? It boggles the imagination.
So I have to ask, “Why did Matthew put this story here? Why has it persisted as the story on one of the major feast days of the Church year, the Feast of the Epiphany?”
Well, it might comfort you to know that we are not the only ones who might have been confused by the inclusion of this story in Matthew. You see, we may think of these magi as wise men, but that is not at all how they might have been seen by Matthew’s listeners. The magi, as far as we can tell, were astrologers and interpreters of dreams. They traveled around in roving bands that included their families and animals, sort of like gypsies. To an Israelite Jew at the time of Jesus, they would most certainly nothave been seen as wise or honorable at all. In fact, this would likely have been a source of great amusement that these fools would come so far to see a newborn who was probably a toddler by the time they got there.
And this is where it begins to come together. Luke’s gospel has shepherds going to the manger to witness the “good tidings of great joy.” Shepherds who lived on the fringes, who were considered ruffians, not fit for polite company. Kind of like Matthew’s wise men.
And in both gospels, the ones Jesus calls as his disciples follow in this vein – sinners, tax collectors, fishermen. From the time of his unlikely birth, Jesus gathers around him those deemed insignificant, unworthy, flawed, broken. The poor, the blind, the lame, the widow, the orphan. People with baggage that weighs them down. People that the world has beaten up and left by the wayside.
Matthew’s gospel was likely written to a Jewish Christian community in Syrian Antioch amidst a largely Gentile population. This is where Paul started off in his mission to the Gentiles. So, of course Matthew is going to include the outsiders, the Gentiles, in his infancy narrative. This “good news of great joy” was for allthe people! If you’ve ever waded through the long genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, you’d see that he includes some non-Jews there, too. While his audience was primarily Jewish, he was not proclaiming an exclusionary gospel.
While it’s very interesting, at least to some of us, to pore over these scriptures and try to figure out hidden details and meanings, the important thing is not really who the magi were or where they were from or even when they came. It’s far more important to understand that people still journey to see the Christ-child, even today, even us! We know the story of Jesus’ life, how it begins, how it ends, and how he triumphs over the grave. Yet still we come to encounter the child. Why is that?
I think it’s because we can’t help but be changed by meeting Jesus. We are renewed every time we make our journey to Bethlehem. It’s no accident that church buildings have long been set up so that we have to journey from our place to the table – it’s all about Jesus’ invitation to us to come and see; come and be changed. Whether you’re on your way to the cradle, the tomb, the font or the table, you can’t help but be changed by that experience.
So, our wise men did not return to Herod, a good an example of civil disobedience as you will find – and it’s a good thing they disobeyed Herod’s “request,” because if they had, we wouldn’t be sitting here. No, the wise men went home by a different way, and I don’t mean that just literally. I believe that they were changed by their journey and by what they saw. And what about us? Are we the same now as when we arrived to see Jesus in the manger? The next question is, are we going to go home by the way we came, or will we, too, go home by a different way?
- Will we return to a life too busy fretting over petty grievances and disagreements to embrace the light that has come into the world, or will we go home by a different way?
- Will we go back home by the road of worry, despair and disappointment, or will our encounter with Jesus take us home by a different way?
- Will we continue to distance ourselves from those who are different than we are, or will the child in the manger lead us home by a different way?
- Can we go on judging ourselves harshly, not accepting our own wounds and brokenness, or will this epiphany show us that we can go home by a different way?
- Will we still make only half-hearted attempts to fulfill our baptismal vows to work for justice and peace and to seek and serve Christ in all persons, or will this encounter renew in us a transformation that takes us home by a different way?
Beloved in Christ, we have a choice. We can go on as we have, or we can take a different way home today, journeying with one another on a new road, rejoicing in the Good News that has come to us in Jesus, God-with-Us. Will we go back the way we came or will we go home by a different way?