(A sermon preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church 1/3/2010)
This is our opportunity to talk about the wise men who visit the newborn Jesus, but I first feel like I need to talk about Easter.
(Did I say Easter, meaning Christmas??? NOPE!!! I mean Easter!!!)
There are some key things that all four Gospels tell us about Easter:
Easter Parallels (all four Gospels tell us that):
---Jesus was crucified
---The Romans carried it out, and Pilate was the one with the authority to have Jesus crucified
---Two others were crucified with him
---Jesus’ disciples hid
---One of his inner disciples, Judas, betrayed him to the authorities (the chief priests & elders)
---Peter denied knowing him
---The inscription “The King of the Jews” was on Jesus’ cross
---He was laid in a tomb
---Women discovered the empty tomb
Now, in comparison, let’s move back to Christmas:
Christmas Parallels (All four Gospels tell us that):
---Jesus was born.
Even that, is somewhat an assumption:
---Mark never talks about Jesus’ birth, but we can assume he was "born" by later accounts of family
---John says Jesus was the word of God from the beginning, and that the word became flesh…that points to birth.
Matthew & Luke both have stories of Jesus’ birth, but there are only a few places of agreement:
---Jesus was born in the days of King Herod
---A Virgin birth from Mary, although described differently: Luke has Gabriel visiting Mary, and she says, “How can this be, because I am a virgin. Matthew says that “Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit." An angel then appears to Joseph in a dream to keep him from dismissing Mary
---It happened in Bethlehem
Everything else of our Christmas tradition that comes from the Gospels comes from either Matthew or Luke, but not from both. That's really important to remember when we are considering the accounts of Christmas.
So, onto the subject at hand: Who were the witnesses to the events of Christmas?
Luke tells us about nearby shepherds...lowly neighbors of Judean society...who come to see the newborn baby, and rejoice in what they find. They are Luke’s first witnesses to Jesus, other than the barnyard animals.
Matthew, however, has no account of shepherds. Instead, the Gospel of Matthew focuses on a group of foreigners who come searching for a newborn king they have read in the stars. They are never mentioned to be kings, but “wise men”. Christian tradition has turned them into specifically three kings, to match the three gifts that are given, but the text never names how many people actually came, and there is some oral tradition of a larger group of people. Their gifts match what would be given to a king from another ruler, but it would most certainly come by lieu of emissaries from a king, not the actual king himself. What is clear is that the gifts come not from fellow Jews (which the shepherds of Luke almost certainly were), but from foreigners. In a footnote, the NRSV Bible calls the wise men “astrologers”. The wise men (Greek “magi”) were likely a learned class from Persia, east of Judea. Foreign regimes often sent emissaries to greet and give gifts to new kings or rulers. Precious metals and costly spices and resins were appropriate gifts for a king. Thus explains gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh: what would otherwise seem to be strange gifts for a newborn baby.
The emissaries go first to the palace in Jerusalem...that’s where a newborn king should be...but instead find uncertainty and fear. So their journey continued throughout the countryside. They passed by all the wealthy dwellings and places of power. Finally, they find Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a house, not a stable. It is possible that a room opened up somewhere, and that the young family had moved on from the actual birthplace, the only thing certain is that there is no mention of a stable anywhere in the Gospel of Matthew. (The stable comes from Luke, where there aren’t any wise men.)
Still, wherever and whatever the dwelling was, it is certainly not the expected place to find a newborn king. All this, however, does not bother the emissaries: they rejoice all the same, and lay their gifts among the perplexed family.
The sense of joy is what is shared by both groups of witnesses: Matthew’s wise men and Luke’s countryside shepherds. They all seem to sense that something significantly new has happened. Upon seeing for themselves, they all eventually return to their homes, back to their lives, and yet they seem transformed by the experience.
The wise men, however, have the additional interaction with Herod that I wish to draw your attention to. The notes in the NRSV Bible tells us that “In the time of King Herod” places Jesus’ birth within a fixed time period and set of political realities: Herod the Great was King of Judea from 37-4 BC, and the Emperor Augustus was his patron. (Yes…that’s the year 4BC…so much for Jesus being born in year zero.)
It is a group of foreigners...not the King of Judea, the chief priests and scribes...that recognize the signs that God has done something new: bringing a new king of God’s people into the world. So, the role of the wise men as witnesses stands in contrast to the people who should be the witnesses.
Blogger Jeremiah Bartram writes this in his entry "They seek---and they find---Wisdom":
“We see the wisdom of the ages in these mysterious strangers, who have come from afar. They are learned, they are astute – but they are not calculating and corrupt, like Herod. They do not dissemble. There is a purity to their mission – as there is to any dedicated intellectual or scientific project.Why are they making this voyage? We don’t know, precisely.They naturally go first to the court, as the expected place where a new king would be born. But they take the change of venue in stride; they recognize the kingship of Jesus in very humble surroundings – and they offer their royal gifts, without any apparent expectation of return. Emissaries from a foreign court seek a return. They are there to curry favor, to cement an alliance of mutual self-interest, for the purpose of trade or defense. Not these strangers: they are “overwhelmed with joy”; they enter the house; they see the child with his mother; and they kneel down and pay him homage. Thus, they are no ordinary emissaries: whatever the original intention of their mission may have been, they surrender to the Grace that lies before them, in the form of a helpless baby. The story shows us human wisdom saluting Wisdom incarnate, and paying homage to it.And then, warned of Herod’s true intentions in a dream, they avoid the court with its glamour and its danger, and return home obscurely by another road: anonymous, without drawing attention to themselves, prudent. No need for outward show or ceremony, no need to call on the aging tyrant, now in his final, violent years; and certainly no desire for the reward that he might have offered for information leading to the child.People of wisdom: they protect, they do not betray.”
The story’s conclusion creates a vivid contrast between King Herod and the foreign visitors, and gives clear parallels toward Jewish scripture. The Gospel of Matthew suggests that kingship defined by the political realities of the time, embodied by Herod the Great, the Roman chosen king of Israel, stands in contrast and opposition to what God wants and is doing. Kingship and religious leadership is ultimately redefined in Jesus.
Matthew’s audience would see that the birth of Jesus fits what has been foretold: but as usual, even while following the script, God does things in new and surprising ways.
Thanks be to God!