Wise men honor the Christ child

SERMON SCRIPTURE: Matthew 2:1-12

Jesus has friends everywhere, not only within his own tribe. Jesus’ enemies may also be found among those we would hope to be his staunchest supporters. People’s cultural, national or even religious affiliation does not dictate their opinion of Jesus nor their willingness to come to him, to honor him, and to be transformed by the experience.

Wise men from the east…

Who are these men, and why are they important to Matthew’s telling of the Gospel story? Why would they have mattered to Matthew and his community of first century believers? Why might they matter to us?

What do we know?

Everything we think we know about them beyond what is here in this text of Matthew 2:1-12 comes from later traditions. As hymns become a primary teaching element for the faith, we might consider our Christmas Carol “We Three Kings.” The gifts they bring would have highlighted the threefold ministry of Jesus as King, Priest and Sacrifice. The gold is a sign of Christ’s royalty, the frankincense a sign of priestly prayer, and the myrrh a sign of sacrifice. The carol helps us understand what the gifts represent as symbols of Jesus’ identity. As to the identity of the men themselves though, this is not from scripture. “Oriental” arises from an earlier use of that term to refer to the Near East – India and Persia – not the more common current usage of the Far East – China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea. As such, we locate them in the region around Babylon.

They were not kings in the sense of political rulers like Herod or Caesar or King David. The Greek word “magi” refers to a philosopher/astrologer/priest, such as those of Zoroastrianism which originated in Persia and was broadly known in Babylon during the time of the Jewish exile and captivity there (2Kings24; Jeremiah29). When Cyrus king of Persia conquered the Babylonian Empire, he released the Jews and helped them return to and reestablish Jerusalem (Ezra1). This experience would have further connected the Jews to an experience of the Persian religion and a high regard for these Magi.

The Magi came because they had seen a star rising, which was widely taken as a sign of the birth of a king. The star is thought by some to have likely been an asteroid, or perhaps a planet like Venus, which to the naked eye appear as a star and travel across the sky. It may also be that the Magi were exposed to the writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and so anticipated the coming of a Messiah King to the Jews. Zoroastrianism also includes a story of a coming savior – in fact Zoroastrianism has several parallels to the Christian understanding of Jesus as the Jewish messiah/savior/king.

Who are they for Matthew and his community?

Culminating the return from captivity – For Matthew and his community, the visit of the Magi might represent the Jewish messiah being honored by the Persians who had helped reestablish Jerusalem, and thus pave the way for the Messiah generations earlier. This epiphany, or appearing, represents the culmination of that weaving of traditions. Perhaps Jesus represents the fulfillment of Zoroastrian hopes and prophecies along with those of the Hebrew bible. Jesus is, of course, the savior of the World, not only of the Jews, and not specifically through the Jews, as is evidenced by Peter and Paul’s work to confirm that Gentiles need not become Jews in order to follow the Messiah.

Blessing contrasted with cursing – The Magi are also set in contrast to the violent hatred of King Herod, himself a Jew who misunderstands what the Messiah represents for his people and for the world. It is through their hopeful inquiry that Herod is alerted to the presence of this potential rival to his family reign. Their arrival sets into motion additional fulfillments of prophecy that Matthew references – the slaughter of the innocents and the flight to Egypt (Matthew2:13-18). Thus, for Matthew and his community, the Magi are essential though secondary characters who advance the plot and fulfill the messianic hopes.

What might they mean for us today?

Nothing is simple. Even God has to take the bad with the good. – We see that bad and good are mixed, even in the living of our faith. The coming of the messiah is good, yet along with it comes suffering through responses of rejection. It seems that this is unavoidable, even as God is working out the divine will among us. The Magi come to honor the new born king, yet their arrival alerts others who would seek to destroy him. How often are we faced with choices in life that have both positive and negative outcomes, and we have to weigh the potential and likely consequences? We give people with deadly diseases treatments that also can be fatal. People have to decide, is the hoped for cure worth the risks of treatment? The coming of the Magi to visit the Messiah reveals that even in the working out of salvation history God faces such choices with mixed results. God acts to bring blessing and good, but bad things also result. This might suggest that we cannot escape such complex and ambiguous outcomes. This is not a matter of “the ends justify the means” but it may mean “the ends justify some undesired negative consequences.” I suspect we could find numerous other examples of this in scripture.

Other faiths also honor Jesus and are allies. – The visit of the Magi to the Messiah can be a model for us of an interfaith dialogue. Here we have people who are not Christians in any traditional understanding, and yet they come to Jesus, worship and serve him, and leave transformed (literally “by another way”). How might we see this as a model for engaging with people of other faith traditions? Can we convey the Good News of Jesus in such a way that people of other faiths are drawn to him, honor him, and are changed by the interaction, even if we do not see them abandon their own faith as a result? Can we accept that as something to be celebrated, as Matthew seems to do? Islam, for instance, affirms Jesus as a prophet worthy of honor. So perhaps in the Magi we see a foreshadowing of those like the Muslims who would honor Jesus, and even support kingdom work with their gifts, though they be not fully converted to traditional Christian orthodoxy.

Non-religious belief systems can also find room for Jesus. – The Magi may also represent non-religious spiritual, philosophical and scientific traditions. Many people give to Christian ministries out of their shared sympathy for the cause and respect for the way the kingdom work is conducted. They are not thereby manifesting Christian faith, per se, but are “leaning into Jesus” being drawn toward him and honoring him, not as their own king, but as a king nonetheless. If we as Christians will properly represent Jesus to the world, many will respond as the Magi did – coming to him, honoring him, and being transformed by the experience. This, Matthew suggests, is something to affirm, even if they are not fully converted. We can honor them, because they honor Jesus, even if they do not recognize all that we would about him.

Proclamation of the Gospel includes affirmation of people with diverse beliefs. – The Christianity of Matthew’s day found itself increasingly embroiled in theological and political conflicts. Tensions between Jews and Christians were rising after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. Within Christianity there were liberals and conservatives, Gnostics and Ascetics, Judaisers and Hellenists, strict literalists and those who embraced a free and open theology. Paul’s writings are filled with his responses to such struggles, attempting to articulate a middle position between all of these – both grace and works, word and spirit. Paul even notes that he is the apostle to the gentiles, while Peter is the apostle to the Jews – ministry moving in two very different directions, among different communities with diverse cultural, national, and even religious perspectives. All of these things were still true as Matthew wrote his gospel emphasizing how Jesus was the fulfillment of promises found in the Jewish scriptures. And within that story, Matthew included this narrative of the Magi, Persian philosopher priests who were likely of the Zoroastrian religion, who came to honor Jesus and bless and serve him with their gifts.

Jesus has friends everywhere, not only within his own tribe. Jesus’ enemies may also be found among those we would hope to be his staunchest supporters. People’s cultural, national or even religious affiliation does not dictate their opinion of Jesus nor their willingness to come to him, to honor him, and to be transformed by the experience.

Even kings may come and worship the King of kings.

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