Going Home a Different Way

At last, 2020 is gone. It is in the history books. However, today is similar to yesterday, isn’t it? The sun rises on schedule. The rain came and life continued. Did you notice how quiet it was yesterday? I hardly heard any cars on Route 32. But each new day brings us more hope. We have lived through a very difficult and trying time. For more than nine months we have had to continuously adjust to a new normal — masks, social distancing, zoom meetings, and limited family connections. It has been tough and stressful for all of us. But the human spirit has a marvelous capacity to adapt to change. We may fight change. We may regress and become depressed. Or we may adjust to the constant change.

One thing that does not change is God’s love for each of us. We have celebrated a different Christmas. Less family connections, smaller worship services and maybe less food! But what is certain is God’s demonstrated continued love for each of us — through the birth of a baby — named Jesus.  One of the Christmas Carols that we sing (through masks) is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. It is in this hymn that we are reminded over and over again Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel — God is with us! 

So, please keep your spirits alive for the grace of God is hovering over us and leading us into a brighter 2021. The sun rises and the sun sets, and God declares each day — Good!

Opening Reflection

Lord, the love of the world was born for all of us — Jesus the Lamb, Word of God, Incarnate, the Truth, the Life, the Way. Jesus, our Redeemer, draw near to us today. For the sins of the world, he died for all of us – Jesus the Lamb, Word of God, Incarnate, the Truth, the Life, the Way Jesus, our Redeemer, draw near to us today. For the hope of the world —Jesus, our Redeemer, draw near us today.

(Paraphrased from “Looking to Jesus Our Redeemer, Bon Secours Retreat Center)

A Reading from Scripture Matthew 2:1-12

2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

The Christmas story is not complete without the visit of the Maji to Bethlehem. All nativity scenes have the Maji who are sometimes called the three Kings or the three Wisemen. We think that Christmas is not really Christmas unless we include this part of the story of Jesus’ birth as found in the second chapter of Matthew. In the Christian liturgical calendar, the coming of the Maji is known as Epiphany. Epiphany ranks as the third most important event of the church year, right after Easter and Pentecost. As we remember the birth story of Jesus, it was quite important for the “long awaited” King to be born among shepherds and angels in Bethlehem. But the visit of the Maji added an important note to the incarnation story. Jesus is revealed and worshiped by the Maji – pagan gentiles. — The story is now complete when we understand the Emmanuel – God with us is revealed to all of humanity. The word Epiphany means revelation and with the revelation of Jesus to the Maji, God’s plan of salvation turns out to be a plan to save the entire world. I usually associate the word epiphany as the Aha moment. Like – now I see more clearly or now I understand or best – now I believe! Aha! Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us! In the Gospels, Epiphany is also applied to the baptism of Jesus and the wedding at Canna where Jesus changed water into fine wine—Aha! He is who He says He is!

Today I want to focus on the report of the Maji in Matthew 2. Let us take some non-scriptural liberty with the story of Jesus’ birth and early years as an infant and add some obvious new thoughts.[1] Mary, Joseph, and Jesus could not continue to live in the stable – would get kind of smelly and uncomfortable.  By the time we get to Matthew 2, Jesus is a toddler and sleeping in a bed. His family thankfully upgraded to a house, which may have been connected to all those shepherds and angels coming to the stable. Anybody witnessing that spectacle surely scrambled to make more room available. In Matthew 2, the family still resides in Bethlehem. They are visited by a collection of exotic magicians from the east, described by tradition as three kings or wise men, easily the strangest guys to show up in the Gospels thus far. Scholars conclude they were likely astrologers, who, having checked their skies, determine an important king has been born who is worth checking out. With the kind of fervor currently reserved for any royal birth, these astrologers trace a star toward Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city. They go straight to the palace since that is where you’d expect a king of the Jews to be born.

For the ancients, astrology was the best that science had to offer as far as the cosmos was concerned. It was a world where the earth sat at the center of the universe and stars and planets were thought to be alive. What did the Magi see in the sky that night? An astronomical anomaly? A blazing comet? A bright supernova? An alignment of planets? Speculation runs rampant. But whatever they saw, I like how the Magi used the science of their day to pursue truth and how it brought them to Jesus. Searching for truth does that. Aha!

Scholars conclude that “from the east” probably meant the Magi hailed from Persia, Babylon, or Arabia, known to us as Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia: nations whose significance to peace on earth is as important then as now.

What were Arabs doing looking for a Jewish Messiah? Plenty of scholars remain suspicious about whether this epiphany even happened. Who can believe a bunch of Arabian astrologers who are chasing a moving star looking for a Jewish kid they think to be divine? Then again, it’s not the sort of story you would concoct as Matthew was preparing his revelation of Jesus. For serious Old Testament readers, this was not a surprise encounter. Isaiah the prophet saw it coming in chapter 60: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you…. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” This is where we get the idea that the Magi were kings. Isaiah goes on to foresee how “the wealth of nations shall come to you; a multitude of camels shall cover you…”. This is how camels get into Nativity scenes. And finally, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord,” which is how Isaiah gets linked to the Magi. The gift of gold is a symbol of kingship on earth, Frankincense is an incense that is for deity and Myrrh is used to prepare a body for burial.[2]

Maybe the Magi knew something of Isaiah, which would have given them corroborating reason to follow the light to Jerusalem. They get to the palace but do not find a new king. There is just the crazy old King Herod—a lunatic monarch paranoid about his power to the point of murdering his own wife and sons out of fear that they threatened his throne. The Roman Emperor Augustus reportedly remarked how it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his kid.[3] We all know the atrocity he commits against innocent children that follows the departure of the Maji. News of a newborn King terrified Herod. He checked with his Jewish religious advisors and found that the Magi’s calculations were six miles off. The prophet Micah had foreseen Israel’s savior to be born in Bethlehem instead of Jerusalem. Putting on some fake piety, Herod sends the Magi to Bethlehem on a diabolical hunt: “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” The irony is unavoidable: Pagan astrologers travel the long distance to adore Israel’s Savior, but Israel’s ruler just wants him dead. And not only that, but Israel’s religious leaders, who know the prophecies inside and out and actually believe, fail to join the journey even though for them it was only a six-mile trip. Why bother?

In 2021, people still seek Jesus in places you would normally expect to find a king: amidst respectability and success, security and contentment. We presume the Lord to be present mostly when there’s money in the bank, the career’s intact, our relationships are enjoyable, the kids succeed, our bodies are fit, and the weather is nice. I am not sure the Lord cares much about how far you’ve made it up the career ladder—or about your relational enjoyment, your kid’s success, good fitness, or the five-day forecast. For most Christians, even the faithful ones, money goes away, careers collapse, relationships break down, children disappoint, our bodies get sick, and the weather can kill you or Covid-19 will get you. Remember, the Magi gave Jesus myrrh for Christmas, a spice used for burying bodies. It was like putting embalming fluid under the tree with Jesus’ name on it. You get the sense these wise men knew how things would turn out. Jesus himself warns that following him requires a cross. Whether you take that literally or metaphorically, the point seems to be that coming to Jesus can be hazardous to your health.

As a baby, Jesus already shattered human categories of religion and race and class and privilege. Outsiders are welcome inside. Before the story is over, the homeless and destitute, prostitutes, lepers, Roman centurions, condemned criminals, and the IRS will all be welcomed inside too. But the welcome was not merely an opening of doors and putting out a welcome mat hoping outsiders might drop by. The disturbing beauty of the Gospel is how Jesus became an outsider himself: marginalized and outcast, scandalized and condemned, he descended as low as humanity goes in order to raise us up.

New birth feels like death sometimes, because being born again means death to the sinful life you have been living, and that can hurt. Yet as painful as new birth can be, the new life it brings gets described, and experienced, as both abundant and eternal, full of grace and joy. We read that the Magi were “overwhelmed by joy” upon coming to Jesus—and he was still just a toddler. They bow before him and pay homage though he would yet to speak a word or do a miracle. “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praises of the Lord,” just like the prophet said they would.


[1]  Most of the following is paraphrased from Christianity Today January 2020

[2] Isaiah 60: 1-3, 5-6

[3] Macrobius (c. 400 CE), one of the last pagan writers in Rome, in his book Saturnalia, wrote: “When it was heard that, as part of the slaughter of boys up to two years old, Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered his own son to be killed, he [the Emperor Augustus] remarked, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig. From Wikipedia