Here we are – coming to the end of the Christmas story – the Kings, who had so much farther than everyone else to travel, have finally arrived. As a child I used to wonder, if these “wise men” were so wise, why didn’t they know to start earlier…
We are so accustomed to seeing creche scenes with kings and shepherds gathered around the manger that we don’t question them at all. But we have to realize that if we are waiting with shepherds at that creche for the kings to arrive, we will wait forever. Luke gives us shepherds, Matthew, in the Gospel we heard this morning, gives us kings, or wise men, or magi.
The problem with the Christmas Story is that there is not one story, but two. In our minds they quite easily run together. But when we trust our memories, some important details get dropped. Most of what we know as the Christmas story comes to us from Luke. Luke has shepherds. His telling of the story is particularly good for a warm and fuzzy Christmas.
But this Feast of the Epiphany directs us to Matthew – the “other” Christmas story. Matthew has wise men. And when you take away all the warm and fuzzy stuff from Luke, Matthew’s story is dark.
The Gospel of Matthew begins, more or less, by calling the roll of Jesus’ forebears, starting with Abraham – who fathered Isaac, who fathered Jacob, and so on generation after generation. It is a powerful list, full of twists and turns and illegitimate children and such. But it’s hard to imagine a happy family gathering where earnest children ask to hear yet again the first chapter of Matthew…
When it comes to Jesus’ birth, Mathew is in a “just the facts” mode. Before their marriage, Mary is found to be pregnant, so Joseph is going to quietly end the engagement. But an angel, the first character with a speaking part, gives Joseph the full story. So, Joseph takes Mary to his home and Jesus is born – at home. No muss, no fuss, no long trek to a far-away town, no stable, no details… I haven’t shortened it much because there isn’t much to shorten…
That brings us up to today’s feast – wise men, or magi, or astrologers appear in Jerusalem from the east. They were following a star, but they somehow seem to have lost sight of it. They have but one question: “Where is the infant king of the Jews?”
Ooops… This would be like walking into Moscow in the Stalin years and asking, “where is the infant who will be the new leader of the Russian people.”
Herod, King of the Paranoid, gets wind of the question and, like any truly insecure despot, begins to fight. He learns from his minions that The Messiah is to be found in Bethlehem. And so, in a touch of irony, it is Herod that puts the wise men back on the path to Bethlehem. Star back in sight off they go to meet Jesus. And this is the epiphany – the manifestation: The star points to Jesus – God in man, made manifest.
The wise men, while they’re there, open their treasure chests and give gifts to the baby – gold, frankincense, and myrrh… notoriously inappropriate baby gifts… It’s easy to assume that the purpose of the trip was to deliver gifts – bearing gifts we traverse afar, as the hymn says… But in Matthew’s actual telling, it is worship that is the prime purpose of the wise men. The gifts come almost as an afterthought.
The wise men go home, and the story gets much darker. In our calendar the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents has already come and gone, but its proper place in the sequence of things is still to come. Herod realizes that he has been betrayed by the magi. He doesn’t want to worship the new king, he wants to kill him. And since the magi have failed to identify the precise child, Herod has all the little children in Bethlehem killed. This is why Hallmark cards tend to stick to Luke’s version…
Mysterious, cold, paranoid, violent… these are the kinds of adjectives that Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus bring to mind. No cattle lowing… no shepherds proclaiming glory to God… no peace on earth… little if any goodwill toward anyone.
Matthew is so sparse with details, of course, that over the centuries we have had to invent them. First these mysterious visitors acquire a gender – they become wise men; a
quantity – there are three of them (because there were 3 gifts); upward social mobility – they become kings; they get names – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar; and perhaps most surprising – they acquire race, or least one does – one of them is black.
The good news of these mysterious wise travelers from a far is not that their journey was easy or direct, or that they were such gifted detectives – they needed the help of Herod after all. The good news is that they persevered.
It’s quite fun and heartwarming to locate ourselves in Luke’s Christmas story – we can be shepherds, or perhaps cattle and sheep, or maybe even, for a lucky few, Joseph or Mary.
Locating ourselves in Matthew’s Christmas story is less charming, but a good spiritual exercise, nonetheless. I can find myself among the magi who wander and get lost… If I’m honest I can find myself among the greedy minions who cling to Herod for power and protection, even when it calls for committing atrocities. And ultimately, I am Herod – who would rather commit unspeakable acts than tolerate Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us… God with me…
The joyful good news, the Gospel, is not that I’m prepared for Jesus in my life. The good news is that Jesus comes into our world just as surely as Jesus came into Herod’s world. Jesus comes not in spite of our failure, but because of our need. Jesus comes because our world is dark, unjust, cruel, and wicked.
In our world we know power which enforces its desire with force and violence. Jesus comes to bring an entire new way of living – a world led by authority rather than power. Jesus is the very author of life, the very word of God, who’s kingdom is built with love rather than might.
Our human instinct is, like Herod, to hang on by force. And the consequences are horrific. But following Jesus is dying to self and living to God. We don’t hang on – we surrender.
And so, we pray come, Lord Jesus.