Listen to the sermon here.
I have been lying to you. I’m terribly sorry.
On December 16th, I allowed three children to march right down that aisle dressed as kings, walk right up to Mary and baby Jesus in the manger and offer him presents.
I know you come to Christmas Pageants for their historical accuracy and I apologize from my heart because those details were all just wrong, wrong, wrong.
It gets worse. At this very moment, right below me, there are three plaster figures painted to look like kings handing presents to the baby Jesus, who is in the manger. We just can’t stop telling you that story! What is the matter with us????
Here’s the truth. The kings were not kings. They were magi. Magi were believed to be Zoroastrian priests. Zoroastrianism is an Iranian monotheistic religion started by the prophet Zoroaster about 3500 years ago. Also, our text never tells us how many kings there were. We say there were three Magi because there were three presents, but there could have been two. Or five. Or twenty. Also, and this may be the worst part—the Magi don’t come to the manger. In fact, the Magi don’t show up in Luke’s account of the Nativity at all. The Magi only show up in the Gospel of Matthew and the text tells us they came to the house where Jesus and Mary were. I know you are SO SHOCKED right now! I’ll give you a moment.
In the church’s defense, it is WAY easier to sing, “We three kings of orient are” than “We undetermined number of Zoroastrian priests of Persian descent are”.
The story of the Magi is a strange story that we have molded to a shape that makes us comfortable. But in the strangeness of the story is at the heart of what is wonderful about the story.
The Gospel of Luke’s version roots the Nativity Story in Jewish tradition. By the end of reading, we know that this baby is the savior of the line of David, come to save his people. Angels pop up everywhere, reassuring everyone, making all the players feel secure that the miracle that is happening is within the bounds of how God has acted throughout history.
On the other hand, In the Gospel of Matthew’s account, no angel comes to alert the Magi. They are not studying Hebrew Scriptures or praying to the Hebrew God. They are practicing an entirely different religion, studying the cosmos, reading the signs in the stars when a star they had never seen before shines so brightly they stop everything they are doing.
Somehow they know this star is connected to the birth of Jesus. They are compelled to follow the star and find the child.
The event of Jesus’ birth is not just a religious one. Jesus’ birth changes the very shape of the universe. And this new star that appears, that shines so bright, be it a supernova, a meteor, or a miracle, reminds us that Jesus’ story is much, much larger than any religious tradition. John Polkinghorne, scientist and Episcopal priest writes, “Of course, nobody would deny the importance of human beings for theological thinking, but the time span of history that theologians think about is a few thousand years of human culture rather than the fifteen billion years of the history of the universe.”
The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus, as the Word, was present at the birth of universe—which is older than any of us can imagine. For heaven’s sake, our pop culture is feeling all kinds of nostalgia for the 1990s! The 1990s! How can we possibly imagine fifteen billion years ago!
The story of the Magi encourages us to think big, to think cosmically, to engage in wonder and mystery.
We spend so much of our time as Christians thinking small. This makes sense, of course. We have to make a thousand small decisions every day. We wonder what God wants us to do about our friends, our families, our work, our decisions about where to live and what to drive and where to worship and how to forgive. As priests we worry about individual people, and liturgy, and budgets. These are all good and worthy things to consider.
But the Magi invite us to look up. Put down the check list. Put down the iPhone. Look up. Look up at the stars. Remember that we are tiny people on a tiny planet in the middle of a vast universe. Remember that there are millions of suns and planets and moons and meteors and black holes. Remember that even on this tiny planet we have ecosytems that contain plants and animals that humans have not yet discovered. The world is mysterious and complicated and so are we.
Your body contains about 100 trillion cells. Your brain is firing hundreds of billions of neurons. Think of the muscles you’ve used today just to wake up, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, get dressed and drive or walk to church. Even if you are sick, even if your body is disappointing you right now, your body still accomplishes amazing things every day.
Our world is filled with wonder. The Magi invite us to see the wonder of a baby born to save the world. A tiny baby that contained all of the God that made the universe into which that baby was born. A baby who grew up and experienced the ordinary and extraordinary world of human beings. Whose heart beat just as ours beat. Whose neurons fired just as ours do. Whose feet got calloused and hard, whose heart got broken, whose life ended. Just as ours do.
But this baby obeyed our biology and physics only to a point. After all, what is the fun of creating a Universe if you cannot play around with the rules? By defying death, Jesus changed the rules for us, too. Inviting us to a new type of life, ruled by light and hope instead of death and despair.
No wonder the Magi stopped what they were doing. No wonder the Magi brought incredible gifts to symbolize this child’s kingship and death. The Magi knew this was the baby who was going to change everything.
The Magi were open to the wonder.
Not everyone was so open to the wonder. Not everyone was able to look up and out and beyond their own interest. Herod. Poor, psychotic, self-interested King Herod. The Magi come to him, excited to be directed to this infant born King of the Jews and all Herod can do is panic. He has no imagination. He can only see this infant as a threat to his power. He is afraid Jesus will change his life.
And that is the catch for all of us, isn’t it? That if we give in too much to the wonder that our lives will change. After all, wonder is not something we really value. We value irony, objectivity, and the ability to make dispassionate decisions. Nowhere on a report card is there a place where children get marks for imagination. Nothing will make a dinner party more uncomfortable than someone going on and on about Jesus.
But maybe we can do a little experiment. Maybe just for the season of Epiphany, which starts today and lasts until February 12th, we can practice being less like Herod and more like the Magi. For these five weeks we can practice looking up. For these five weeks, we will take out a telescope and look at the stars, or learn something new about how our amazing brains work, or unabashedly delight in the Good News of Jesus’ birth. We can read a poem instead of the editorial page, stare at some art rather than our checkbook, ask a question, rather than giving an easy answer.
We can practice being like the Magi, open to the unusual, open to new adventures, open to Jesus.