Jesus is an instigator. Have you noticed this about him? All he has to do is show up someplace, and things start to happen. Apparently this character trait developed early, because here he is, not even two years old—we get that clue from the next stories, where Joseph is warned in a dream to take the child to Egypt for safety—and already it begins.
A bright star appears in the heavens. For Jews who knew their Bible, it would have been seen as a sign of the birth of Messiah, as they recalled the promise way back in Numbers 24:17: “…a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter rise out of Israel.” The star is a sign of the birth of a new King, a descendant of the great King David.
Some others see the star. They are not Jews. They are Gentiles, outsiders. Although in our opening hymn today we refer to them as “Kings of the Orient,” they are really “magi”—magicians, astrologers, star-gazers—the scientists of their era. They have been studying the heavens, and have been captivated by the bright star they have seen. They decided it is a sign of something of great significance, and so they follow it. Matthew is not a scientist, obviously, because stars can’t be followed, nor do they travel and then hover over someone’s house. We’re talking theology here, not science.
All Jesus had to do was show up in human flesh, be at the right place at the right time, and things are set in motion that will change the world. Now even the Gentiles are coming to worship him.
King Herod the Great notices, too. He doesn’t notice the star, but he does notice the Magi, and he’s curious about their intentions. He doesn’t notice the star because he’s a Jew in name only, not in faith or practice. He’s a ruthless king, power hungry, striving to please the Romans at whose whim he governs, and he won’t hesitate to do away with those who get in his way. A wife, a brother-in-law, and three sons—all were executed by Herod because he perceived them to be threats. And, of course, we know he will execute John the Baptist for speaking the truth about his living with his brother’s wife.
Jesus shows up, and things happen! In this story, he doesn’t do anything but live in a house, and powerful forces are set in motion as a result! He is, we know and believe, no ordinary child. So it’s no wonder there is a unique and bright star in the sky, and it catches the attention of Gentile astrologers and Jewish kings and Bible scholars alike!
This child is a King, born to be King for all people!
And that’s good news for some—bad news for others! It was true then, it’s still true.
It’s bad news for King Herod, and Herod knows it. When the scholars search the scriptures at Herod’s command, and discover the Messiah is to be born—as Jesus was—in Bethlehem, Herod knows he’s in trouble! He knows Jesus is a threat! Herod knows that there’s not room for both of them, and so he does what kings do: he puts the power of his Empire to work to destroy the threat. It’s bad news for us when we pretend we are in charge of our own lives, when we cling to the illusion that we don’t need a loving community to help us become better people, when we try to avoid making a full commitment to God, preferring instead our own selfish choices. Like Herod, there are times we, too, would just as soon eliminate this Jesus from our lives because his very presence reminds us of our obligations to grow in our faith and to manifest a different way to live.
But the birth is also good news. It’s good news for the Magi. Initially just following a star, their curiosity stirred up by an astronomical phenomenon, the astrologers are drawn to the child. And they realize on a spiritual level that he is a King, and they choose to allow him to become their King, and they worship him, and they give him gifts fit for a king. The Magi are changed and their lives are given new purpose.
It’s significant that they are Gentiles, and not Jews. They are not insiders in the Bible story. They are not insiders from the viewpoint of the religious authorities of their time. They are from the East—from where, in the past, nothing but trouble has come to the Israelites. Remember, it was to the East that they were taken into a painful and shameful exile, after their city was ruined and their holy Temple burned to the ground. But here they are, visitors from the East, and they are welcome in the house of Jesus. They receive a revelation, a hierophany, an epiphany we say. They are changed people, so yes, the presence of this Jesus is good news for them. It’s good news to Magi, to Gentiles, to those once thought beyond the reach of God’s mercy and love.
But is it also good news for us? If we’re completely honest, it’s a dilemma, isn’t it?
For many of us here, we have felt on the outside looking in. We were raised in churches that were quite clear about who was “in” and who was “out”, who was worthy and who wasn’t, who was being saved by God, and who was being rejected. For us now, we see this Jesus as good news because for so long we thought of ourselves as inadequate, not good enough. It’s good news for us because we have experienced healing and strength through the ministry of this parish.
But the coming of Jesus is bad news when we put ourselves in the place of Herod, when we choose to allow lesser things be in charge of our lives. When we deceive ourselves into thinking we can find peace and strength on our own. When we want to make the rules, and eliminate the threats to our comfortable middle class lives, and keep God in his place. But, we can’t keep God in his place, because he is Emmanuel, God with us, and he will pursue us and agitate us and keep us from finding peace until we accept the fact that God is the ground of our being and that, like gravity, God is a force that holds everything together in himself. There is no settling for second rate things, no substituting things for this God.
Matthew presents the Magi to us are an example: they followed a star, and were led to Jesus. They didn’t worship the star, they didn’t obsess about finding extraordinary signs or significant emotional experiences. They noticed the mysterious appearance of the star, the wonder in the heavens, and they were open to God’s presence in their own experience. Their personal experiences brought Jesus into focus for them, in exactly the same way our personal experiences bring Jesus into focus when we are paying attention.
After the star was gone, Jesus remained. And, warned in a dream that Herod had evil intentions, the Magi went home, changed, transformed, renewed. They went home by another way. By another way. That phrase has a double meaning. Yes, the Magi took a different route home, steering clear of Jerusalem, avoiding Herod, wanting to honor Jesus. They took a different route.
They also took a different path. Their lives were changed. They were no longer on the outside looking in, no longer dependent on rare and mysterious stars to guide their lives. They had seen the revelation of God in the eyes of a destitute Child, and somehow that was enough.
We arrive at the end of the Christmas season so quickly, having spent a lot of energy, time and resources to prepare for it. Have we received the gift we wanted so badly? Have we, like the magi, been changed? Have we come home to peace and healing? That’s the challenge of Matthew’s story. Are we willing to follow Jesus, are we willing to be responsible for each other, are we willing to take an alternate path from the one we’ve been on? Or will the Herod in us, the one who wants to be in charge, the one who wants to make his own way, the one who pretends that prayer and service are optional, the one who only wants a God to grant our wishes like a senile old man in the sky, will that Herod in us keep us from following this Jesus with integrity and commitment?
Singer-songwriter James Taylor talks about this dilemma in his song, “Home By Another Way”. I leave you with the first two stanzas of that song:
Those magic men the Magi, some people call them wise
or oriental, even kings. Well anyway, those guys–
they visited with Jesus, they sure enjoyed their stay;
then warned in a dream of King Herod’s scheme
They went home by another way.
Yes they went home by another way, home by another way.
Maybe me and you can be wise guys too
and go home by another way.
We can make it another way, safe home as they used to say;
keep a weather eye to the chart on high, and go home another way.