January 6, 2019
Christ Church Gardiner
When I was a kid, we moved around a fair amount, but we always lived in what has been called the “Bible Belt.” So no matter where I was living, there were very few Sunday mornings that you wouldn’t find me at church. I spent a lot of time in Sunday School and a lot of time sitting in the pews like you are now, listening to sermons.
Because I spent so much time in church, I thought I knew the Bible pretty well. When I arrived at college and signed up for a New Testament class in the spring of my Freshman year, I just knew that was going to be one of my easy classes. But barely a week into this class, something shocking happened. We were studying the Gospel of Matthew, and I learned that when the Wise Men found the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, they didn’t kneel down in the straw to worship him with the shepherds and the animals in the stable. The baby Jesus wasn’t even lying in a manger. Matthew’s Gospel just says, “When [the Wise Men] saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house [the HOUSE, not the stable], they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”
There are no shepherds, no angels, no animals, no stable, and nobody shouting “There’s no room at the Inn,” in Matthew’s Gospel. And there are no Wise Men in Luke’s Gospel.
Now this might not seem like a big deal to you, but it was shocking to me. How many times had I set up the creche at our house…like the one we have here in the church at St. Ann’s altar…with the Wise Men, shepherds, animals, and angels all surrounding the Holy Family. How could there be two totally different stories about the birth of Jesus in our Bible? And why did I grow up believing they were both just part of one story? How had I not noticed that before? This was the beginning of a small, but significant crisis of faith on my part. Because if I didn’t know this about the Gospels and the birth of Jesus, what else did I not know?
But once I got over my astonishment, I started to wonder why…. Why does Luke have shepherds and animals and a manger and Matthew has Wise Men bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh?
There’s no one answer, and biblical scholarship still wrestles with this question today, but what we do know is that Matthew and Luke had different audiences and different motivations, and when they wanted to capture for their readers what the main idea was about this person Jesus, they came up with slightly different things.
For Luke, it seems it was Jesus’ preference for the poor and the marginalized. Thus, a birth story that shows Mary and Joseph resigned to bringing this baby into the world in a stable, in the company of farm animals, with their first visitors being smelly shepherds from the surrounding fields. Implying that when God chooses to send a Son into this world, contrary to the popular belief of the time, that child would not be born in Imperial Rome, but in the hills of the occupied country of Israel…in the village of Bethlehem.
But for Matthew, Jesus is both the promised Messiah of the Jews, from the line of King David as Jewish scriptures had foretold, but also a King born for all people. Jews and non-Jews alike. Matthew’s Gospel begins and ends with a message of inclusion. In our story today, the Wise Men come from the East (“from away” as you Mainers would say). They are astrologers who read the course of human events from the stars. And they were most definitely pagans. And yet, they followed the star that would lead them to the King of the Jewsso they could pay him homage and bring him gifts. The stars told these pagans that something momentous was happening in Israel, and they followed.
And then in the very last chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus has been resurrected and is standing before his disciples with last instructions, he says, “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” ALL nations. His message was not just for Israel but beyond. The pagan wise men came from the ends of the earth to worship Jesus. And the disciples are sent to the ends of the earth to tell the good news of why Jesus should be worshiped.
What we get in Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus is an inclusive and universal message about the salvation of Jesus. But it’s more than that, too. In this Gospel, Matthew wants us also to understand how the birth of Jesus means the rejection of those already in power.
This morning, we celebrate the Epiphany. Epiphany…which means a revelation. A sudden understanding of the true meaning of someone or some event. The arrival of the Wise Men to proclaim the kingship of the baby Jesus and to bring him the gifts meant for royalty is a revelation of who this child is and will be and how far-reaching his influence will be.
But this epiphany, also reminds us as we end our twelve days of Christmas that we shouldn’t sentimentalize the birth of Jesus. It’s a sweet, tender story to be sure, but it’s also about a revolution. The birth of Jesus was a threat to those in power. Herod knew this. He was frightened. That’s why he tried to trick the Wise Men into bringing him news of the baby’s location. That’s why when the Wise Men didn’t return with the location of this new king, he ordered the slaughter of all the children 2 years and under born in Bethlehem. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures when you have power.
So while Matthew’s telling of the Wise Men in his Gospel is intended to show us that Jesus was sent for all people, it’s also about making a choice. The Wise Men had to choose whom they would serve. And even more than 2000 years after Herod is dead and gone, we have to ask ourselves every day: Whom will we serve?
Do we choose a king like Herod and the idea that power and authority are worth any cost, or do we choose a King like Jesus whose power seems to turn our very understanding of the word upside down? Because his power is demonstrated in his humility. In his love for the outcast, the sick, the poor, and the sinful. In his message that the last shall be first and that if you want to save your life, you will have to first lose it. A power that leads to his crucifixion, not a seat on a throne.
And if we choose the kind of power exemplified in Jesus, in what ways will we resist the powers that look more like Herod? Powers that are concerned only with their own self-interest and not the Way of Jesus? How will we be like the Wise Men and resist when needed—refusing to be pawns in the power game being played out in the world around us?
Choosing to follow that star from the East to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem was an endeavor of hope for the Wise Men. It was an act of faith to make that long journey, trusting they would find a true king at the end of it. But after having been warned in a dream about Herod’s intentions, their determination to go home by another road was an act of defiance. Their courage made it possible for Jesus to grow into his kingship and show the world what power could look like when its purpose is justice, mercy and humility.
So on this celebration of the Epiphany, will we have the courage to follow the lead of those Wise Men? Let’s follow the star in hope and faith but resist when needed and when called, take another road home. Amen.