Call to Worship/Isaiah 60:1-6 (NRSV)
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
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.
Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Beckoning God—who called the rich to travel toward poverty, the wise to embrace your folly, the powerful to know their own frailty; who gave to strangers a sense of homecoming in an alien land and to stargazers true light and vision as they bowed to earth—we lay ourselves open to your signs for us. Stir us with holy discontent over a world which gives its gifts to those who have plenty already, whose talents are obvious, whose power is recognized, and help us both to share our resources with those who have little and to receive with humility the gifts they bring to us. Rise within us like a star, and make us restless till we journey forth to seek our rest in you. Amen.
Scripture Reading/Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “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.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, 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.”
9When they had heard the king, 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. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
When you think about it, nine miles isn’t a very long distance. From this very spot, it’s about nine miles to Pembroke to the west and nine miles to downtown Simmonsville to the north and right at about nine miles to the south end of Blacksburg to the east. Driving at 60 miles per hour, one can drive 9 miles in nine minutes. In fact, most of us probably don’t think twice about traversing such a distance driving our climate-controlled, comfort-laden, internal-combustion vehicles. We just get in the car and go. So, what’s so important about this insignificant distance…we’ll, it’s one of those small but important details that we overlook when we encounter the Gospel lesson for this morning.
You see, the distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem is exactly nine miles, and while to us this may seem a minor detail, for our understanding of the deeper meaning of this story it is essential. We are blinded by the light of the star that led the magi to make their long-distance trek. We have become enamored with the gifts that are presented to the Christ-child, the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh, representing gifts given to a king, a priest, and one who is to die. We have romanticized this story to the point where we’ve neglected the political and theological undercurrents flowing beneath its surface.
Matthew wasn’t the first one to imagine strangers from the east coming to Jerusalem. Matthew’s story line and plot come from the 60th chapter of Isaiah, a poem shared with the Jews in Jerusalem about 580 B.C. These folks had spent a couple of generations in exile in Babylon and had come back to the ruined city of Jerusalem. They were in great despair. Who wants to live in a city where the towers have been torn down, Solomon’s opulent Temple, the center of their religious life and a sign of God’s presence with them, reduced to dust and ash, all of this and a failed economy to boot? And there’s no one around who seems to know what to do about it. In the middle of all this mess, Isaiah invites his depressed, discouraged contemporaries to look up, to hope and to expect everything to change. “Rise, shine, for your light has come.” Isaiah anticipates that Jerusalem will eventually become once again a beehive of productivity and prosperity, a new center of international trade. “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. . .” Caravans loaded with trade goods will come from Asia and bring wealth. This is cause for celebration. God has promised to bring the city and the people back. And God keeps God’s promises.
Like Matthew, the Magi also must have had some knowledge of Isaiah 60. There were many Jews who remained in Babylon or had migrated to other parts of the Babylonian empire instead of returning to Jerusalem and Judea after the exile. Perhaps the magi had access then to their Holy Scriptures and the words of Israel’s prophets. Perhaps they had encountered the Jewish religion and had studied the tenants of Jewish faith. It’s as if the magi knew they were to go to Jerusalem and to take their precious gifts. More importantly, they seemed to know that they would find a new king who was to bring peace and prosperity. But when Herod hears of these plans, he is frightened. Verse 3 of our text says that not only was King Herod frightened, but all of Jerusalem was also frightened with him. And that’s why I think that there were more than just three wise men.
The text, however, is nondescript. It simply says “wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.” Church tradition has followed the pattern that there were three of them, each one bringing a different gift. The church has even given them names, Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior. And there is even another legend, a beautiful story of a fourth wise man named Artaban. By the time of Jesus’ birth, Jerusalem had once again become an important center of trade. The arrival of bustling caravans coming from one direction or another was probably a daily occurrence. So, in order to garner the attention that it did and to arouse the distress and fear of an entire city, it seems logical that this must have been quite an entourage. What was so different about this one? Perhaps it was the fact that they went directly to Herod and began asking questions about the birth of a new monarch, a new king, a potential threat to Herod and the old order. Perhaps it was the story of the star that the magi had observed. In ancient belief, such astronomical phenomena, be it a comet, or a supernova, or some alignment of the planets often portended the birth of an important person.
In his panic, Herod arranges a consultation with the leading scholars of the day, the chief priests and scribes who had studied the Old Testament scriptures. “Tell me about Isaiah 60” commands the paranoid king. “What’s all this business about camels and gold and frankincense and myrrh?” The scholars tell him: You have the wrong text. And the wise men outside your window are also using the wrong text. Isaiah 60 will mislead you because it suggests that Jerusalem will prosper and have great urban wealth and be restored as the center of the global economy. In that scenario, the urban elites can recover their former power and prestige, and nothing will really change. Not liking that verdict, Herod asks, defiantly, “Well, then, do you have a better text?” The scholars are to awaken the ire of their paranoid king, but tell him, with much trepidation, that the right text is from the prophet Micah 5:2-4: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah . . . from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old…” Micah offers a different vision of the future, anticipating a time when the poor and the disenfranchised will no longer be dominated by the rich elite. Micah’s vision isn’t impressed with high towers and magnificent arenas and ornate palaces. Micah anticipates a leader who will bring well-being to his people, not by great political ambition, but by attentiveness to the needy.
Herod tells the magi what the scholars have found, and the rest is history. I’ve often wondered why Herod didn’t send his own people to Bethlehem. Why didn’t the chief priests of the scribes go with the magi? After all, if this was indeed true, you’d think they’d want to be part of such an event. If this truly was the highly anticipated Messiah, you’d think they’d want to be in the vanguard of those to welcome him. Perhaps they had ceased to take the promises of their own Scriptures as seriously as the magi? Or, perhaps they didn’t want to make such a trip with “them unclean fereners,” as we say in the south. Or maybe, just maybe, Herod held them back, fearful of the consequences if it actually was true that a rival king had arrived to contend for power…a fear that would eventually lead Herod to order the slaughter of all the male children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under. If there is a new king who can inspire complete strangers to undertake a strenuous journey to an unknown destination for the purpose of paying homage to him, then the magnitude of their effort suggests that the established powers are at risk of being challenged.
One might think that Herod could have the magi arrested on the spot, perhaps even executed for insurgency against the mighty Roman Empire. Herod was merely a puppet king for the Romans so any threat to him, at least in his own mind, was a threat to Rome. Why not nip this issue in the bud before it escalates? But Herod was too cunning for that. Of what benefit would killing the seekers be, when it’s the one being sought who needs to be dealt with. “I’ll use the unsuspecting magi as pawns in my political chess game,” connives Herod. “These stooges will be my secret informants and then I’ll plan my next course of action.”
So, Herod sends the magi on to Bethlehem unimpeded, with the underhanded caveat that they return to him and share what they had found so that he could also worship the new king. They head for Bethlehem, a rural place, dusty, unpretentious, off the beaten path…an appropriate place for the birth of the One who would stand with the poor and set for us an example of service and humility. The One who would reveal God’s power through the giving up of earthly power. The One who would come from Bethlehem, also known as the city of Bread, who would become the very Bread of the Life.
Theologian Scott Hoezee puts it this way: “What Matthew may be trying to convey by this story…is the reach of grace. Matthew is giving a Gospel sneak preview: the Christ child who attracted these odd Magi to his cradle will later have the same magnetic effect on Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, greasy tax collectors on the take, despised Roman soldiers, and ostracized lepers.” In this story we hear that the smallest things, like a newborn baby, can terrify the arrogant, and bring them down in the end. We learn that God’s reach of grace goes far beyond every obstacle and pushes us beyond them, too. We learn that a great light has dawned, a light that draws all people and calls us to live our lives illuminated by its truth. That’s what the Epiphany season is about, as the psalmist declares: “May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service. For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper” (Psalm 72:11-12). The Magi fascinate us also because they do not fit into this tiny stage of hill village and humble stable. Their sophistication clashes with this simplicity; their obvious power sits uneasily beside the vulnerability of child and family. They are urban in a rural world, affluent in the presence of poverty, cosmopolitan amid the provincial.
The Epiphany story is more than the recognition of a special astronomical occurrence or even the giving of precious gifts. It’s a tale of two cities, if you will: Jerusalem, with its history and heritage, its great pretensions, and Bethlehem, with its more modest promises. We can find ourselves complicit with the powers of treachery and death who reside in Jerusalem, a life of security and self-sufficiency that contains within it its own seeds of destruction. Or we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual assumptions. We can choose to receive life given in vulnerability. The real miracle of the Epiphany, then, is the fact that the wise men didn’t avoid this alternative; they defied convention and went on to Bethlehem. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that “rather than hesitate or resist, the magi reorganize their wealth and learning, and reorient themselves and their lives around a baby with no credentials.”
Bethlehem is nine miles south of Jerusalem. Although the wise men were highly regarded as intellectuals, men of great academic achievement, they originally missed their goal by nine miles. It’s mind-boggling to think how the story might have gone had Herod’s interpreters not remembered the passage from Micah that pointed them in the right direction. Indeed, most of us are probably looking in the wrong place. Our lives much more resemble the violence of Jerusalem than the vulnerability of Bethlehem. We are off by nine miles. We choose the way of Herod who seeks to retain power no matter what the cost over the way of Jesus, who triumphs over death through death itself. The Season of the Epiphany is a good time for us to take the journey, to travel the nine miles from pretension and perceived self-security to vulnerability and generosity. Epiphany encourages us to make the transition from our preoccupation with spears and swords to a life epitomized by the desire to plant and reap God’s harvest of hope with plowshares and pruning hooks.
Indeed, the wise men made this trip. They endured the last nine miles with great anticipation and joy in their hearts, knowing that at its end, awaited something, better yet, someone, who had not only come to be King of the Jews, but who had come to bring salvation and peace to all the world. Nine miles—merely the distance from here to Simmonsville, or to Pembroke, or to southside Blacksburg. Imagine, if we were truly willing to make this nine-mile trip to Bethlehem, to commit ourselves to such a journey, to worship the Christ-child and to offer him our whole selves to live as he has called us to live…we just might find ourselves coming home by a very different way.
Let us pray to the One who created all things:
O Lord make your wisdom in its rich variety known through all faithful people and give your holy church grace to bear the gifts of truth and love to all your children on earth.
Give your justice to the nations and their leaders and give your mercy to all whose decisions affect the peace and well-being of the world.
Where we have power ourselves, open our ears to the cries of the weak, the poor, and the needy, and open our hearts to answer their call.
Bless this community, that in your light we may become servants, one to the other.
Bring us together in story, song, joy, and sorrow; and let every daughter and son who comes among us find kinship in this place.
Have mercy on those among us who journey in sickness, fear, depression, or addiction. Meet them on your road with rest, comfort, and peace.
Bring your eternal hope to those who mourn the loss of loved ones, the loss of relationships, the loss of dreams and opportunities, the loss of oneself, that their hearts may be healed and that their tears might be transformed into life-giving waters.
With longing and thanksgiving, Dear God, knowing that you hold this world and all its children dear in your heart, we pray for the grace to receive your gifts and to offer back those same gifts to you and your world with love.
To the One who is the road upon which we travel, our companion along the way, and our journey’s end, we pray in boldness and confidence through faith in Christ Jesus, who taught us to pray:
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Blessing & Benediction
May this holy season of Epiphany be for each of us a time of moving beyond what is rational and toward the star of wonder—
moving beyond grasping tight to what we have to unclenching our hands and letting go, following your Light wherever it leads;
moving beyond competition toward cooperation, seeing that all human beings bear the image of God and therefore, are our sisters and brothers;
moving beyond the anxieties of daily life towards your larger vision for our lives filled with the joys of justice and peace.
May the transforming acceptance of Mary and Joseph, the imagination of the shepherds, and the determination of the wise men guide us as we seek the Truth—always moving toward the Divine promise, ever aware God can be hidden in the frailest among us, persistently open to the unexpected burst of God’s Grace, to the showing forth of that Love that embraces us all.
Go with courage into this New Year, knowing that God is with you. Amen.