I've recently discovered that I kind of enjoy having my sermon material edited and critiqued...I think it's a wonderful development for me, because I've kind of hidden my sermons till they're preached sometimes for fear that I will have to start from scratch because what I think I have is so awful. Or I haven't wanted to hear the criticism, or find out that my brilliant ideas aren't so brilliant (heh.) But I'm growing more comfortable with critique, and since I want to preach the best sermons I can preach, I'm putting some of my fodder out there for critique and questions.
Here is the portion of my sermon that goes back through some of the historical details of the magi in Matthew 2:1-12, which is the lectionary passage for Epiphany, which we're observing on Sunday, January 3 since we don't have a midweek service.
I want to take this in a more applicable-to-today's-life direction eventually, talking about how the Magi could see in the stars the potential of a king, and linking that to our ability to see potential in each other and ourselves...I haven't quite figured out how to transition into that yet from what I've got so far, but that's where I want to land. I'm thinking of ending with Marianne Williamson's passage (the one that is so often--though falsely--attributed to Nelson Mandela) about letting our light shine so that others can also shine. I see it a lot now, and maybe some will think it's overdone, but I have a feeling many in the congregation I serve have never heard it before, and it could help to bring it all together. What do you think?
So, here's the historical stuff, too...have at it!
Upon first glance, the Gospel lesson today appears to be one that we’ve heard many times, and so we know the story. It’s the passage that goes with the hymn “We Three Kings.” It’s the story of bringing gifts to the baby Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s a predictable story, and one that we know well. But if we look deeper into the story, and we allow some outside, scholarly voices to guide us, we might uncover more details, that add even more luminosity to the story. Even with more facts, we get more mystery.
To begin with, in this Gospel lesson, nowhere can the word “kings” be found. Matthew tells us about three wise men, magi, which means not that they were magicians, but, according to scholars*, that they were astrologers “who studied the heavens for portents of significant events.” Additionally, they were probably not alone, on horseback or camels, approaching Bethlehem, but part of a larger caravan that included servants and supplies, enough to make a journey of several weeks or possibly months.
We tend to picture three kings who ride up to Herod’s throne, get the word to go on to the baby in the manger, freshly birthed and scrubbed and a few days old, and then the wise men scoot off as if going down the block, led by a shiny star on top of the next streetlamp. But if we look closely here, we might also see that quite a bit of time may have passed since Jesus was actually born. If Herod is so threatened by what the wise men have seen: a star in the sky that foretells the birth of a king, a king who Herod realizes is not him, and he declares that all male children 2 or younger are to be put to death, then perhaps up to two years’ time has passed since Jesus’ birth occurred. This also puts a different spin on our images of the wise men coming into the manger; the phrase “on entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother” might refer to a toddling Jesus hiding behind his mother’s skirts, peeking around from behind her knees, instead of a brand-new, pink, puffy infant sleeping in a cradle.
To me, the most fascinating part of rediscovering the details of this Bible story is the suggestion that by the alignment of the stars in the sky, the magi could KNOW that a king had been born to the population. This is why they go and ask Herod: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” (Matt 2:2 NRSV).
When Herod hears this, we can imagine that sort of hollowed-out, cold feeling in the center of his chest, the kind of feeling you get when you hear news that you just don’t want to hear. These magi, these experts in telling of world events based on the stars in the sky, have come to look for the king of the Jews, whom they know is a small child, and who Herod must know, in one sweeping moment of unsettling certitude, is not him. This spawns Herod’s order to do away with male children two years and younger, a horrible, evil, plan to preserve his power, to rid the world of the one come to usurp him, a tragic decree because it causes the loss of life of so many baby boys, and yet not the one who was Herod’s target in the first place.
The reason that Jesus was able to live was due to the courage and the integrity of the magi, who, in keeping with the theme of dreams and visions in Matthew’s Gospel, had been warned in a dream that if they returned to Herod as they’d been commanded, to give word of where Herod could find the child, that Herod would not, as he had suggested, go and pay the baby king homage, but rather go and take the life of the child so that he could no longer be a threat.
The magi, whom we think we know so well because we’ve heard this story so many times, might have more to teach us than we originally thought. Upon first glance, the story is predictable: they see a star, they check it out with Herod, they go find Jesus, they give him gifts, they go on their merry way.
But when we unpack the details, we see the richness of the story, and the terror, too: the richness of the mystical skills of the magi to see important events foretold in the alignment of the stars. Terror at the reaction of Herod and the desire to maintain his power through the ending of many innocent lives, the way the effects of his decree must have rippled through families who were impacted by tragedy. The mystery of the dream that comes to the magi that causes them to disobey Herod’s order to return, and instead to continue back to their homes without telling Herod where to find the child.
*"Scholars" here refers to Paul J. Achtemeier's commentary in Feasting on the Word.