Sunday, January 5, 2020
Scripture: Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Before I go into the part of the sermon where I imagine that I am a Magi, I want to share a story from my own life that helps frame this sermon. We lived in Ann Arbor prior to seminary. The University of Michigan attracts people from all over the world, so you never know who you’ll run into. We attended a tiny Reformed church next to central campus, and most of the people who came were students. The church was small enough that visitors were pretty easy to identify. Particularly when they’re from India. Sitting in the front row. And not a student.
Every couple of months this Indian gentleman who was probably in his upper 50s would come to Ann Arbor to visit his child who was enrolled at the university. In my recollection, he came all the way from India each time, but that may just be my bad memory. Anyway, there he would sit in the front row, proudly wearing a U of M maize-and-blue shirt to worship. He was a friendly guy, and of course, the church was always welcoming of him.
We had a weekly prayer time in worship where we passed a mic around for anyone to speak up about prayer requests. Invariably, this man would take the mic and speak. “I am so glad to be here,” he would say. “I am not a Christian, but I love coming to your church. I love hearing about Jesus. I love the way you worship. Thank you for having me here. It is good to be with you.” It was always a similar message, and in my younger, less-traveled mind, I found him fascinating. Why would this guy who is not a Christian keep coming to our small church? What was it that attracted him to Sunday morning?
So, as I wrote today’s sermon, I was thinking of this Indian gentleman with fondness and curiosity. I imagine that there is a bit of the Magi in him too. So, with that as background, I will now become one of the Magi.
Here we are. Your calendars have already flipped to a new year. Christmas seems like months ago, but you do know, don’t you, that Christmas doesn’t even end until tomorrow? You sing about “three kings.” You talk about “wise men,” but, really, we are the late arrivals. Your feast day of Epiphany is tomorrow. It’s the day you mark our arrival because it took us awhile to get to Jesus. It’s also the day that marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas, so don’t rush back to normal life just yet!
Before I get into our story, I do feel like I need to clear up some things about us because so much extra stuff has been attached to our story over the years. There are reasons that these details got added, but that doesn’t mean they’re true! Matthew really doesn’t tell you very much about us, so people through history have speculated a lot about us. First of all, we aren’t kings. A few centuries after we lived, the tradition started assigning us identities to fit prophecies, like you read this morning in Isaiah 60. You can read Psalm 72 as well. You named us: Melchoir, king of Persia, Gaspar, king of India, and Bathasar, king of Arabia. They’re not us. And do you really think we’d be daft enough to visit the paranoid King Herod to ask him about a rival king born under his jurisdiction? That’d be crazy!
So, we’re not kings. We did present Jesus the three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – but there weren’t just three of us. That’s been a convenient invention for your nativity sets. Not kings. Not three in number. Hope I’m not ruining Christmas for you!
So, what are Magi, anyway? Well, your Bible translates magoi as “wise men,” but that’s not quite it. You see, in our world, Magi were skilled in many areas when it came to reading the signs. It’s like an engineer, which is a good general category, but you have chemical, electrical, structural, and mechanical engineers all doing things the others can’t do. So, we Magi are known for several skills. Some interpret dreams. Some are good at magic. Some are fortune tellers. And some are astrologers. Can you guess what kind of Magi we are? Star-readers.
Aren’t night skies breathtaking? As days move to night the blues transition into darkness, and as if by magic these millions of lights emerge. There are patterns in the stars. But there are other things that move. The moon changes shape and dances all over the sky. Sometimes stars fall from the heavens and streak across the sky. We look to the heavens and try to read what is going on, which is something I hear you still do today.
We are astrologers from Parthia, in what is now northern Iran. We operate far from the Roman Empire. The Romans actually aren’t fans of us Parthians, but since we Magi aren’t politically important and because we aren’t soldiers, we can travel with some relative freedom. So awhile back we were doing what we normally do. We were staring at the sky, looking for signs and wonders, but it had been a fairly dry spell for us. We hadn’t seen anything new. When things get stale, sometimes the best thing to do is try for a change of scenery. So, we packed our things and started heading westward.
For weeks we slowly made our way west. Some nights were cloudy, so we saw nothing. Other nights were just unfruitful. We were getting closer to the outskirts of the Roman-controlled lands when what to our wondering eye would appear but something in the sky we had never seen before. It was mystifying. We conferred with our charts. By day we talked about this new star, but none of us could make sense of it. Night by night we would study this new star. It behaved differently than other heavenly bodies, and we knew it must be special.
One day some shepherds were wandering by, and we stopped them to ask if they had seen this star. They had, but they also had a very interesting story to tell. You see, these shepherds had been visited by an angel and told them about a special baby, one they said was their Messiah. Suddenly the sheep scattered, and they ran off after their sheep. We didn’t have time to ask them anything else. So, we had this interesting story from the shepherds and our strange star. We knew we must be getting close and that our answers must be in the holy city of Jerusalem.
If you ever want a question answered about Judaism, Jerusalem is the place to be. We found teachers and priests, and we asked them all, “Where is the Messiah to be born?” We were students of the skies, and they were students of their Scriptures. They told us, “In Bethlehem.” “How far away is that?” we asked. “Just a couple hour’s walk south of town,” they replied. It seemed like the pieces were coming together, for their words were matching up with what we were observing in the night sky. We were determined to investigate, but before we could, word came that King Herod wanted to see us. You see, Jerusalem is always filled with rumors, and of late there were more rumors of a Messiah. Our arrival and the star had Herod more worried than normal.
We knew we couldn’t decline the invitation, so we went. Herod the Great was well-known in our world. He was a powerful leader who commanded immense building projects. He had a palace in Masada hanging off of a cliff face. He would import marble from Italy and Egypt to get his buildings to look just so. But we had heard he was not just paranoid but perhaps full-on insane. We knew we had to visit with the King, but we also wanted to stay alive. He asked us about our work and particularly about the star we were following. We told him about when we first noticed it, and his face flushed with rage for an instant. He took a deep breath and commanded us to keep up our quest that started with a star and turned into the search for the promised King of the Jews. He wanted to know where he was so could also meet this new king and pay him homage, or so he claimed.
Relieved, we went on our way to Bethlehem. As night fell we followed the star, which was still behaving in mysterious ways. It seemed to be leading us somewhere. Eventually it settled over a small house. We knocked on the door. Joseph answered. We shared our story with him, and he invited us in to meet Mary and the child named Jesus. It had already been an adventure getting here, but the culmination of our efforts made everything worth it. We entered the room where Mary was holding Jesus, and it was as if time stood still. There was something about that child the filled all of our hearts. We shared our story with Mary and Joseph. We told them about the star. The shepherds. Jerusalem. Our strange talk with Herod. All while we were doing this, the child Jesus passed from person to person in the room. Later, when we were on our way home, we reflected on those moments, and each of us had the same sensation of a full-bodied peace wash over us when we held the child. There was something special about this baby.
As we prepared to go, we knelt on the ground in front of the family. We shared our amazement at what we were experiencing. We welcomed this tender King of the Jews. We were traveling with some gifts, and we presented them to the family. We bowed once more to Jesus, and we went to find a place to sleep.
That night we didn’t stare up at the sky, but we all had a frightening dream. When we woke up we knew we had to get out of Bethlehem, and we had to defy Herod. So, we left and got as far away from Herod as we could. Later we heard that Herod had become so paranoid that he ordered all boys below the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed. We heard Jesus and his family escaped, but how terrible! We hoped that this Jesus would be a better king some day.
I share this story with you for a purpose. We Magi have devoted our lives to staring into the sky. Our heads are in the clouds. But this encounter with Jesus and Herod got us thinking a lot more about the earthly consequences of the heavenly. It’s one thing to study the stars, but it’s a whole other matter when you see things happen right before your eyes with their amazing and terrifying outcomes.
We are seekers. We see that there is more to reality than meets the eye, and this strange star and our adventure sure confirmed that for us. Seekers are never satisfied until we’ve found what we’re looking for. I’ve heard you have a wonderful series of books about another magician-type named Harry Potter, who played a seeker in the game Quidditch. What was his job? To find that tiny golden snitch, ignore everything else around him, and try to get it. Sometimes in the seeking you start to find, right? Our quest did not start with Jesus, but it found him. Or he found us. I’m still not sure on that one.
What was it like to meet Jesus? Well, I can tell you that I felt welcome. I felt peace. I’m not Jewish. I’m certainly no student of the Hebrew Scriptures, but I can tell you that there is something real going on with this Jesus. We didn’t know why we brought the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but it turned out those were exactly what we needed to bring. We should never have been there. We’re not Jewish. We’re not even remotely close. We look different. We understand the world in different ways.
Expect surprises, my friends. It seems like this Jesus is one who enjoys surprising us. I’ve heard stories about him over the years. He welcomes people he shouldn’t. Outsiders see things in him that insiders don’t. I guess that was the case with us. Expect the unexpected. We shouldn’t have been there, but we were. And we were welcome. There’s something about this Jesus – his birth, his life, his death, and his resurrection – that has changed the world forever. I’m still working out what it is, but I, for one, am glad to have my life changed by encountering him.