Matthew 2:11 – January 3, 2016 (St. Luke’s Church, Epiphany Sunday)
I remember Christmases when I was very young. I was the youngest of six children, and we lived on the northwest side of Chicago. My father worked for the National Safety Council, which was a not-for-profit organization. He didn’t get paid a huge amount of money, so I remember Christmases when we children wouldn’t have a huge pile of presents under the Christmas tree, like the television commercials of today always seem to show. But I do remember the happiness and joy of those Christmas mornings. A number of gifts were exchanged, and we always had a big dinner later that day at one of my relatives’ houses. Those are warm memories, all of us gathered around the tree, exchanging presents.
Warm memories. I’m sure you all could bring to mind a similar warm memory or two, regarding Christmas. Many of my memories do involve gifts. The Scripture passage we just read mentions gifts, too. It’s from Matthew, Chapter 2, the traditional Epiphany story, when Wise Men from the East came to see the baby Jesus, bearing gifts.
Matthew calls them “Magi,” According to my research, they probably came from the East where the Jews had spent seventy years in the Babylonian captivity, centuries before the birth of Christ. During this period, the Babylonians and Persians probably learned of the promise of the “Messiah” from Daniel the prophet who had lived among them.
The Magi became important first among the Medes and later among the Persians by taking on the priestly functions of the mystery religion Zoroastrianism. By New Testament times, the term “Magi” was broadly used for persons adept in any number of sacred arts, including interpretation of dreams or other divine messages, astrology, magic and divination.
We can tell from the term “Magi” that here are three very important people, who are not Jewish. The consensus among biblical scholars is that Matthew was a Jewish apostle of Jesus who wrote his gospel for the Jewish people. Yet, here, front and center in the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, we find three non-Jewish V.I.P.s, on their way to see the Child, born King of the Jews.
They know pretty much where they are headed, but not precisely. I suspect that is why the Magi went to see King Herod in Jerusalem. I mean, what better place to find a newborn King than in a palace, in the capital city?
I’ve got to give these Wise Men a lot of credit. Not only were they a little fuzzy as to their destination, and where they were going, but they were not afraid to ask questions and ask for directions. It’s too bad that they had to pick Herod to ask questions of.
“Where is the One having been born King of the Jews?”
The Wise Men saw the bright star announcing the birth of Jesus, and followed the star towards Jerusalem. Notice: they were not Jewish, yet they had heard of the Coming One, and even brought Him gifts. They even wanted to worship and adore Him. They had heard of the birth of Jesus through unconventional methods, by our standards. The Magi had foreseen the birth through signs in the stars, not necessarily through the Hebrew Scriptures, as the Jewish people had.
God understood that these Wise Men made a careful study of the stars, and He sovereignly decided to display signs and wonders in the heavenly places at the time of the birth of Jesus. God reached these Magi where they were at. And the wonderful thing is, God continues to reach out to people in ways they understand, no matter what is happening to them, no matter where they might happen to be.
But, let’s go back to these Wise Men. No one is exactly sure about the number of Magi who arrived in Jerusalem so long ago. Church tradition tells us that the number was three, and that these were not just Wise Men, but also Kings of the East. Assuming that they were at least minor royalty, these three non-Jewish V.I.P.s show up on King Herod’s doorstep, and he was not pleased to see them. He was even less pleased with their line of questioning. “What’da you mean, Child born to be King of the Jews? I’m the only king around here!”
Herod must have known something about the prophecies of a Coming One, of a Messiah, and I bet Herod was upset. The chief priests and scribes came to Herod and told him right away where the Messiah was to be born. The prophet Micah had foretold it several centuries before. In Bethlehem, in Judaea, only a little way down the road from Jerusalem.
From all accounts of Herod and his life and reign, he was a tyrant. Looking at writings from contemporary authors of that period, Herod was cruel and bloodthirsty. He was also two-faced, as we can see from his response to the Magi. He sent the Magi to Bethlehem, and requested that they come back after they find this “King of the Jews,” because Herod wished to “worship” this King as well. I have a pretty good idea of exactly what Herod wished to do to the baby Jesus.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Herod secretly found out the time the star had appeared in the sky, and typical of a bloodthirsty despot, he had all boy babies in the area of Bethlehem under the age of two killed. Just in case. This feature of the Christmas story usually isn’t mentioned, since it doesn’t fit into a nice, warm and fuzzy Christmas card. These verses are not included in our lectionary reading for today, either. Yet, this was the kind of world Jesus was born into. The world today hasn’t much changed.
Let’s pick up with these Wise Men. After they found out where the King of the Jews was born, they wasted no time in finding Him. Mary and Joseph must have decided to stay in Bethlehem for a time, since the Wise Men found the Holy Family inside a house. And, the original Greek of the Gospel of Matthew refers to Jesus as a boy, not as an infant, as the Gospel of Luke does. So Jesus may even have been a toddler at the time of the Wise Men’s visit.
Regardless of these minor, yet fascinating, details, the important part is that the Wise Men took the time to find the promised King of the Jews. When they found Jesus, the Wise Men were finally able to offer their gifts—gifts fit for a King, gold, frankincense and myrrh—expensive and costly gifts, to be sure. Then . . . the Wise Men worshiped Jesus, the Promised One, the coming Anointed One of God. And, they returned to their homes, rejoicing that God’s promise had been fulfilled.
What does this story from so long ago have to do with us, today, in the 21st century? God is indeed pleased when we give Him things we very much value, as the Wise Men did. But God doesn’t really want worldly things. What I see repeated in Scripture is that God really wants a relationship with us.
Christina Rossetti’s poem says it so well.
“What can I give Him, Poor as I am?/If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;/Yet what can I give Him—give my heart.”
That’s what God wants most of all for Christmas. God wants our hearts. God wants us to come to Him, as small children come to a dear mother or father.
I can remember when my children were small, and they would come to me at night for a last cuddle before bedtime. I think that’s what God wants us to do. Only, better! God is a parent who will never be too busy to take time for us, and never be short-tempered with us. God’s everlasting arms are ready, wide open to receive any who come.
Yes, the Wise Men gave gifts to the baby Jesus, and yes, they stand as an example for us. We can celebrate their example, and remember it as we give our hearts to God, whether as a renewal gift of our lives, or as a sincere gift for the very first time. Give God the best gift you ever could. Yourself.
You are important, so important that Jesus came and gave Himself for you and for me. All He has ever wanted is to give us the chance to know Him as a personal Friend and Companion.
Won’t you give Him what He wants most for Christmas?