Preacher: Nathan Hosler
Scriptures: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12
As a child my family always had a Christmas celebration with extended family. My grandparents would have meal at their home. This included, as one might expect, a meal and gifts. It also included riotous beat-up golf cart and mini-bike riding through their meadow and a Christmas reenactment. The kids were the stars of the show. While we did this as young children, what I remember most is the later years. While this marked the Christmas story—if we are honest—it probably was also a little irreverent (a later rendition may have had me wearing sheep ears and biting people with my younger (but old enough to be bearded) brother playing baby Jesus. Our costumes came from a collection of dress-up cloths that my mom had gathered. It included a gold and burgundy glossy velvety robe—perhaps a bath-robe? This, of course, was the garb of a wise one—a Magi. Today, Epiphany, we mark the coming of the Magi to worship the Christ Child.
There is a theological point—that is a point that asserts a truth about reality as it relates to God. Theologians have historically asserted all truth is theological. There are not neat and separate spheres as if the world were divided by academic disciplines. Geographers have their rocks, botanists their botanicals, mathematicians have their numbers….but how do arborists count their trees or why is it that we happen to live on this particular rock? This is why in Psalm 19 the heavens and trees join in the praise of God—
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. 2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. The Gospels are not simply a dispassionate recounting of the so called “facts” but are an argument via story that the baby named Jesus is the appearance of the all-powerful God in not only human form but baby human form. The helpless baby is the long-expected savior. The one who sees the dim stable light for the first time was the creator of that very light.
Just before what we read, chapter 1 of Matthew ends with an understated record of the birth of Jesus. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream telling him that though the baby isn’t his, he should carry on the marrying Mary as planned. The final 2 verses read. “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” The next line is—
“In the time of Herod…”. There isn’t any other indication of time passing but we gather by later events that it may have been 2 years after the birth.
A commentator writes, “ ‘ In the time of King Herod’ may seem like a return to reality. Apocalyptic time, creation time, the time of Jesus’ conception—given the way we assume the world works—may seem unreal. But apocalyptic time intersects with everyday time, the time of Herod, creating a political crisis. Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father, is born into Herod’s time” (Hauerwas, Matthew, 37).
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
Wise men, or Magi, arrive from the east. These mysteriously named ones arrive by a mysterious means of navigation. They could be magicians (as the name refers to in other texts) or astrologers. The later Christian Christmas tradition that they were “kings” (We three kings…) may arise from Isaiah 60:3—
Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Hare, Matthew, 13).
The Magi are an affirmation of Jesus. Again, like the shepherds, this is unexpected. The shepherds were looked down on, lacked refinement that would be expected for such a task as receiving and then pronouncing the news of divine intervention and arrival. The Maggi are foreigners, almost certainly from a different religion and not from the local religious establishment experts that should have known. God’s people who had been waiting for the coming Messiah missed it—at least in part.
St. Hilary of Poitiers, writing in the 4th century, writes, “And now the Magi come and worship Him wrapped in swaddling clothes; after a life devoted to the mystic rites of vain philosophy they bow the knee before the Babe laid in His cradle. Thus the Magi stoop to reverence the infirmities of Infancy; its cries are saluted by the heavenly joy of angels the Spirit Who inspired the prophet , the heralding Angel, the light of the new star, all minister around Him” (St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, 59).
While he felt it necessary to take a swipe at their “vain philosophy” it is of note that they were just about the only people who picked up on the arrival of this king. Not only this but they seem to have traveled for 2 years and only were working from a mysterious cosmic sign. Sure, they went to Jerusalem on the false but reasonable assumption that a new king would be born in the capital city but that is pretty close (just under 10 kilometers though presently more difficult because of the checkpoints and separation barrier…). The shepherds got not one angel but a heavenly host singing and only had to walk into town. Both a hometown advantage and angelic booster.
The multiple (maybe 3 because of the three gifts?) seekers of the king of the Jews show and up and ask where this new king is. The asking causes a stir—a stir of fear and not joy.
3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;
The seekers of Jesus with a little extra guidance then set off again.
“…they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.
Though no longer a newborn and no longer sleeping in a feed trough, this child and this family, we can safely imagine, remained unassuming. While these searchers were looking for a king no one else had recognized this reality. It is all still rather normal seeming. The gravity of the presence of this child was easy to miss.
“The inward reality is widely different from the outward appearance; the eye sees one thing, the soul another. A virgin bear; her child is of God. An Infant wails; angels are heard in praise. There are coarse swaddling clothes; God is being worshiped. The glory of His Majesty is not forfeited when he assumes the lowliness of flesh.” (St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, 59).
The purpose of this text is affirmation via mysterious travelers that the baby is the awaited Messiah—the awaited saving one. Magi don’t just show up, give gifts, and worship anyone. They give gifts worthy of the coming king. Though the main life events of Jesus will happen decades later, this unusual Epiphany marks this child as the expected Messiah. Much doesn’t match the expectations of God’s people so many miss him. Even his eventual disciples, those who witnessed in person, even these often miss the way Jesus is the arrival of the kingdom of God—And that this was a different type of kingdom.
Both the unexpected child showed up in an unexpected way—or rather, to most, was too expected. He was just born. In obscurity. With no accruements of power. Both the child was unexpected but also the first proclaimers were unexpected. This is both an observation from the narrative texts but also is a broader theological statement. God often speaks through the unexpected. This means that we may both be the unexpected proclaimers and that we must watch and listen for God speaking in unexpected places.
I almost started to say that God likely shows up in the person or place we don’t expect. So, if your theological and political orientation are such it is no surprise that God may speak through X ______. And if your theological and political orientation is such then God may speak through Y___. This isn’t quite correct. For certainly it is the case that some people are more formed to hear God more clearly than others—for example Jesus clearly affirmed those who were humble before God. The challenge is that we usually assume that we are the ones that hear correctly. We should recognize that we may not be the best hearers. It is not a general rule that God is tricky in always choosing the surprising speaker or messenger—however, the shepherds were
unexpected, the Magi were unexpected, a baby was unexpected, a donkey speaking was unexpected—we, if we happen to proclaim a word from God are probably unexpected, and we need to watch for the unexpected heralds of a mighty word from God.
The Magi were so confident in their ability that they traveled a long way. And they were correct. From the vantage point of the expected hearers of God this was unexpected. For them it was on point.
The lectionary passage stops with the heroic success of the wise men. They succeed and worship and are filled with great joy. There is, however, an ominous and terrible part 2. The fearful Herod, a king holding tenuous power on behalf of an occupying force, shows interest in a new king—when this happens we can’t expect something good. This king asking, apparently innocently and out of curiosity for the “exact time” hints at ill intent. Verse seven reads “Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.” He masks potential motives by saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
We think that Jesus may have been 2 years old at this point because based on the Magi’s response to the appearing of the star, Herod, the fearful tyrant king kills all boys under 2 in Bethlehem. Hauerwas writes of this, “Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants” (Hauerwas, 41).
This is a downer. From “overwhelming joy” at seeing the Christ child to overwhelming grief of the parents of occupied Bethlehem. Children lost at the hands of a leader they didn’t choose who was afraid of a baby that was barely walking, much less overthrowing regimes. This, however, is the nature of the world. Joy next to sorrow. Pain next to healing. Hope next to despair. It is not that these need to be “held in tension” or in balance or that one redeems the other or cancels the other out. In the Matthew narrative, the Christ child comes as God’s definitive action in a world where kings can force parents to travel while pregnant and kill babies. God’s saving action—God coming near to heal humanity happens because humanity needs healing, needs justice, needs peace. The presence of real evil in the context of overwhelming joy forces us to focus—focus! We must watch for the coming King. We must proclaim the unexpected word that the Creator has come near to heal, has taken the lowliness of humanity. That we can be reconciled, and that God has broken down the separating wall between us (Ephesians 1-2).
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.