Salem Lutheran Church


Lessons from the Magi

Our Gospel story today is another one of my favorite stories in scripture. I am fascinated by how these “wise men from the East” would travel such a great distance to a faraway land to pay homage to a “king” they weren’t even sure was real. It is an incredible story for us to hear, but it is also a story that creates frustration for me.

Now, for a few of you, you know my frustration. You see, I get frustrated with this story, because most of the time we tell this as part of the Christmas story. In every children’s Christmas pageant I have ever watched there are “Three Kings” who come to the manger to offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Even at our program just a few weeks ago we had the “Three Kings.” Now, I don’t want to burst your bubble, but the truth is, the “Three Kings” weren’t kings and most likely they weren’t present when Jesus was born. Most likely they didn’t visit Jesus until about two years after his birth. We believe this to be true because Matthew tells us that after they visited the child, gave him their gifts, and returned home, Herod ordered all children 2 years old and under to be killed, because he wanted to eliminate his would-be successor (Matthew 2:16-18). And although having the “kings” in the birth story is a fun way to tell the story, when we conflate these stories as we often do, we miss the real meaning and power that Matthew offers us when he tells this part of the story.

The story of the “wise men” is only told in the Gospel of Matthew. The story never describes them as kings and we do not know how many of them there really were. We only know some “magi,” in Greek, came seeking the child who was “born king of the Jews.” The term “magi” literally means astrologers. These men were not Jewish. They were not political leaders seeking a new political alliance. They were men who studied the stars and men who studied prophecies and believed that prophecies would come true, and when they saw a new star in the sky they believed something special had happened in the world. And so they studied and learned of a prophecy that foretold of a child that was to become a king, and they wanted to go see this child. They left their homes. They left their country and they traveled a great distance. Now we only know that they were from the east, but most scholars believe they came from Persia, which is the part of the world we now call Iran. If this is true, then we know they traveled at least 1,000 miles to see this child. Now that is faith and that is incredible!

What I also find incredible is that just like on that first Christmas, God had to point Jesus out to the world because the world could not see him. Remember how on Christmas Eve when we read the birth story, how Luke told us that Mary and Joseph were alone when he was born and had to lay the infant in a manger, an animal food trough? No one knew Jesus was present in the world, and so God announced his arrival, as I noted on Christmas Eve. But God didn’t announce this to kings and queens, not to governors and magistrates or high priests, but to shepherds. Yes, God announced the arrival of his Son to the “nobodies” of Jesus’ day, and although those shepherds told everyone who would listen, the people still did not recognize their new king. So, almost two years later, God again announced the arrival of his Son, but this time God announced his arrival to foreigners, and when they see the sign and come to know the prophecy, they believe and desire to go and welcome this new king.

Now, these “wise men” were also very brave. Herod was a ruthless, mean man, and, yet, these men from the east went to him and assumed, because he was the current King of the Jews, that he knew where this new king was, but Herod didn’t know where Jesus was. The leader of the Jews didn’t know where the Messiah was, but these foreigners knew he was somewhere close. So, here is lesson number one for me in this story: seeking Jesus in this world is often dangerous, and oftentimes those of us closest to the faith fail to see God at work in our lives.

The second lesson for me in this story is that God intended this salvific act for everyone, not just the Jews. Yes, he would be called the “King of the Jews.” Yes, he was the Messiah foretold in the Hebrew scriptures, but his coming was for everyone. When I read this story I am in awe of this God who wanted to include not only the nobodies of the faith, but people of other faiths in his announcement to the world that he was now fully in the world. Now that is what I call radical inclusivity. God wants everyone — the poor, the rich, the insiders, the outsiders, the somebodies and the nobodies, and yes, even foreigners — to know she is here, she is in charge, and she desires that all come to her.

Herod, and most other leaders of Jerusalem, was frightened by the knowledge that the Messiah was so close. These wise men, these foreigners, were excited and sought him out, but the people of his own faith were frightened. They didn’t even know where he was.

As I always say, not much has changed in 2,000 years. Today we are still asking where is Jesus? And for those who want to really claim to know where Jesus is they point to places like church buildings, Christian faith communities that are morally “pure and innocent.” But no one ever points to non-Christian communities and lands. When disasters strike, whether man-made or natural disasters, we ask where is God, like God would not be present when bad things happen. Or we immediately claim the tragedy is God’s condemnation on the people. But the beauty of this story is that we see that God is in faraway lands, with people of other faiths pointing them to his Son. The beauty of this story is that we see God is always present; we often just fail to seek him out. We often are not willing go where God is because we are afraid. Those wise men took their life in their hands when they went to a strange land ruled by a dangerous King Herod. The only reason Herod let them walk out that day was because he needed them to find this child, but he had no intention of letting them return home. Once they found Jesus they had to sneak out of Judea to return home. When we seek God we often end up in dangerous places because that is where God is.

Jesus doesn’t sit in this cozy sanctuary waiting for us to come back to tell him what is happening in the world. No, Jesus is in the world, calling us to join him in bringing God’s love and grace to a broken dangerous world. Where is Jesus? He is wherever danger exists. He is wherever hearts are broken. He is wherever healing is needed. He is in the presence of those who are very different from us, and he is calling us to join him. Jesus does not discriminate between race, color, religious affiliations, or nations. He doesn’t recognize liberal or conservative. No, Jesus is everywhere he needs to be being radically inclusive when it comes to offering God’s grace, and he calls you and I to do the same.

Today we are being challenged to put Christ first in our lives and to seek him out at all costs. We are challenged to be like those “wise men,” and go and find Jesus wherever he is and offer our gifts to him, but sharing them with the world.

As we journey through this Epiphany Season, a season in which we come to see how God shared with the world who Jesus was, and is, that we might be those who are not afraid to share Christ with the world. I pray we are empowered by the presence of his cross to travel wherever we need to bring about his love and his mercy. Amen.

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