Let me give you the Readers Digest version of the wise men, the three kings, or the magi (as they are sometimes known): You are Mary and Joseph. Christmas is over. It’s time to pack up and return home to Nazareth. You’re approaching the 3 am checkout time. It is now when the donkey is ready and Jesus is in his camel seat that three well-dressed foreigners with unpronounceable names arrive at the door of the manger.
Their story is as ridiculous as their clothing. These men may or may not be Persian astrologers who have followed a star across deserts, over here and yon to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews. To a nervous mother, they’re strangers. On top of everything else, they have no idea what forces they’ve unleashed. By stopping at King Herod’s on their way to Bethlehem, they made a deadly mistake. The “Magi” didn’t understand Herod’s untoward intentions. Mary’s baby might be the “Messiah” (so everyone says) but he’s still a baby. Herod has an army. The three strangers haven’t brought an army; only strange perfumes purchased at the duty-free counter when they changed camels in Dubai.
Guided only by dreams, which you know are only open to interpretation and interpreting dreams is a dangerously subjective business at best; the well-dressed foreigners leave their gifts and go home by another way. That’s the story in a nutshell. However, none of it is history. It probably didn’t happen that way at all.
The best and most reliable stories about Jesus, the ones that resonate most clearly over two thousand years, are not one-offs, or single occurrences. In the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) how many tell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection? From Mark’s gospel written around 60-65 CE until John’s written between 90-95 CE, each tells the story of the crucifixion and resurrection. How many share the story of the wise men? One, it is 12 verses, found in Matthew’s second chapter. Why would Matthew be the only writer of the four to tell this fantastic story? Did the others think it was unimportant? How could a story of a young baby being visited by astrologers from an unnamed mystical eastern land which sets off a madman tyrant kind not be worth remembering? Of course not! If this happened, it would be in all of the gospels. Why is this one story hidden in Matthew?
Dreams are all over Matthew’s first two chapters. Some nights I remember all of them down to the craziest last detail. I dream of strange reenactments of my day, my fears, and memories from decades ago. Maybe Matthew had a dream about Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, and three wise men from the east. Given all the dreaming going on in the first and second chapters of his book, the more I read verses 1-12, the more it sounds like a dream. Matthew’s vision of fancy, foreign people, coming to the little town of Bethlehem sounds like a dream, perhaps the highest aspiration of all. The whole incident is a reference to Psalm 72.
Verses 10 and 11 say, “Let the kings of Tarshish and the island bring tribute; let the kings of Sheba and Seba present gifts. Let all the kings bow down before him; let all the nations serve him.”
I can imagine Matthew going to sleep with a scroll of Psalm 72 on his chest and dreaming of Kings coming to Bethlehem to meet Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.
Perhaps, Matthew wanted to make Psalm 72 a reality. By writing it down, his dream might come true. Maybe, for him, the simplicity of the manger wasn’t enough. This first aspect of Jesus’ life meant less to Matthew than it did to Mark, John, or even Paul. For Matthew, he wanted the world to see that worldly people knew who Jesus was long before Jesus understood who he was. The kings filled that role. They saw something the overwhelmed parents and a newborn couldn’t grasp.
So what do we do with these 12 verses? Is this just Matthew’s attempt at fan fiction? Is there something to be learned as Matthew places Psalm 72 into the manger? Do these fictitious “astrologers” help us understand something about our reality? Yes, there is truth to be gleaned.
The first thing I notice is this: the gift givers from the east do not change the world. The world in which the newborn entered is still the same violent, oppressed place dominated by Herod. Their gifts, while wildly opulent do not magically make the bad stuff disappear. As we know, their presence makes Herod’s tyranny worse. Gifts and visitors, even if they are the Psalm 72 kind aren’t a panacea to the newborn’s problems. The newborn (and all he represents) is still the primary change agent.
The second thing which hits me is: none of us are on the scene. We all approach from a distance. There is some ground between where we are and where Jesus is. When it comes to meeting Jesus for the first time, we are all visitors. Some of us have gifts, others have traveled a great distance, and a few might have only turned the corner. The critical point to remember is, as Matthew reminds us: no one inherits season tickets to Christianity. We walk on; walk up, as we are with whatever or nothing.
Because we are always moving, our perspective is changing. The star requires us to stay focused on the on our goal – the child. Why are we here? To whom are we listening? From whom are we seeking advice? The star can either confuse, push us into an endless cycle of asking, “is this it?” or focus on a single point of light, hope, and purpose.
It’s easy to give in to the distractions that dwell at the center and around the periphery of this story. However, if we remember Jesus is the center; the astrologers, the star, King Herod, the cloak and dagger politics (backroom meetings with priests and teachers of the law) all seems less intimidating. The child is at the heart of everything, not Herod’s fear, Jerusalem’s fear, or the superstitions caused by the appearance of a star.
Go home another way. Change the road your life is on. An encounter with Christ, no matter how large or small, how short or long, should lead us to somewhere we didn’t expect to go. We should be different after seeing Jesus. Our course, path, and life journey ought to alter when we’ve been in God’s presence. There is a new onus on our lives to travel a different life path.
The last lesson I draw from Matthew’s vision of Zoroastrians worshipping a baby in a stable is this: no matter how awkward the situation, we have a responsibility to be welcoming to those who want to see Jesus. We’re all on a journey. At some point, we made our way here. Now others will follow us through those doors and ask to see Jesus. It’s our responsibility to make them feel welcome and give them the opportunity to see Jesus and to have the same experience we’ve had. We can’t take that away from anyone else who shows up and asks the $64,000 magi question, “Where is Jesus?”
Jesus is here, in our community, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, in the lives of all who are gathered here today. Jesus is beyond our walls, among those who journey on new roads and different paths. We pray for them and will welcome them when they arrive. We pray that our journeys will be changed for the better because we have been in this place, seen what we have seen, and shared the gifts we bring.
Richard Lowell Bryant