Our passage from the Gospel of Matthew today is our well known story of the Magi from the East coming to pay homage to the baby Jesus. We presume there were three Magi because there were three gifts. But the bible does not tell us how many except that there were more than one. We all probably have or seen crŤche scenes with the Magi as part of the visitors. If we have watched the various movies on the birth of Jesus, the Magi often play a role. These shows find their encounter with Herod to be a dramatic high point.
This Herod is Herod the Great, not the Herod of Good Friday. At the crucifixion Herod was long dead and his son Herod Antipas was King over Judea by then. But the Herod of Christmas was a cruel and oppressive king, not one to take any joy in the birth of another King as the Magi will refer to Jesus.
But, as usual, in the few words of this story a lot is going on. The passage doesnít tell us which countries these Magi hail from. All we know is that they come from the East and therefore not from somewhere in the Roman Empire. Recall that the Holy Land was part of the Roman Empire and was the eastern most area of that empire. What was East of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Galilee were nations well known in the Bible: Babylon, Assyria, the land of the Chaldees, and Ur. Indeed Babylon was the last place of exile for the Jews and many Jews still lived there.
So though we donít even have names for the Magi and exactly where they come, we know they must come from these lands that still have deep meaning to the people. But authorities coming from these lands would be threatening to Herod and the Romans. Though Herod greeted the Magi graciously, he was threatened by the idea that a new king Ė in his eyes a competitor Ė was born in his land. He was deeply threatened by this. That the news came from Eastern scholars added to the threat.
If we could get into Herodís head, we would probably hear his anxiety: who are these Magi really? Have they been sent to find my vulnerabilities? Are they here to lead an insurrection? Are they here to proclaim this baby as king in deviance of me Ė and Rome?
Who really were these Magi? Matthew is the only authority we have and by Matthew the Magi were seekers and nothing more. They went to Herod because they presumed that a king would be in the capital city of Jerusalem and in the palace. Nothing more. They came to pay homage and then go home.
But Jesus wasnít in the palace. King Herod didnít know where he was. He sent his scholars to find out. They combed the Bible for clues and came up with the prophecy that the descendent of King David who was to be king, who was the Messiah, would be born in Bethlehem. To there Herod sent the Kings asking them to locate him in that poor, poverty stricken town.
It was only 9 miles away and the Magi decamped to Bethlehem. But the distance between Jerusalem in all of its golden glory and attraction as the city of God and Bethlehem the backwater birthplace of David was enormous. What they found was not a royal baby, but a baby born of an unwed teenager staying in a barn.
The distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem was a long, long 9 miles, just as the distance between upscale Westfield and Newark is a long, long 4 miles. I live in Fanwood one block from Plainfield. It is a long distance, though, to Plainfield from my house: when we go for a walk itís in the opposite direction.
The Magi had found who they had sought. We know they accepted Jesus as the King of the Jews. But how this influenced them we will never know. But we know Herodís response. Even though Bethlehem had only David and nothing else, it now provided a threat to him Ö and he retaliated by slaughtering its boys Ö with an army he didnít need an assault rifle.
But the Magi were more than just seekers. They were also messengers, probably unintentionally. By these Eastern gentiles crossing through Asia just to pay homage to a Jewish baby was a message that Jesus was not just for the Jews, but for all of humanity.
But what has all of this to do with you and me?
We are seekers like the Magi. You come faithfully to church. I hope here you are seeking God and find spiritual sustenance. The core of congregational life is finding Godís presence and experiencing spiritual balance within the friendship and the shared work of the congregation.† None of us need be bereft of spiritual support. Within the congregational life we should find acceptance and understanding even when we disagree on topics whether religious or secular. In the congregational life we learn the give and take of community Ö particularly in this age when secular community is weak and in some cases almost non-existence. Here in congregational life we are individuals inasmuch as each one of us brings our own God-given skills and wisdom. But here also we are a community and each of us reaps the joys and benefits of being in community, but also claims the responsibilities and efforts to maintain the community. And so long as we uphold our dedication to this faith community it will continue past our own individual lives.
And our faith community becomes part of our extended family. But unlike a club or a workplace, it is a spiritual family opening doors to the presence of God and encouragement to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.† Here we can safely seek out God and enrich our spiritual lives.
But Ö we must go out of our faith community into the wider, secular world. We should not leave our spiritual seeking or our spiritual strength within these walls. I believe that after seeing the baby Jesus, the Magi went home very changed. The experience in that barn changed their lives and that change would be something they carried into their secular world as scholars who no longer see the movement of the stars as fixed and the coming and going of armies as inevitable. Now they know there is a possible alternative to the constant wars and suffering all around. Now they know the future may bring a better world.
Again we cannot know what they did when they return to wherever their homes were. We do know that after Jesusí resurrection St. Thomas one of Jesusí disciples preached the Word in India. Just possibility if the Magi actually existed maybe they laid some ground work on the way to India. Or if they are just a metaphor, maybe they instilled hope in Thomas that the East would hear the teachings of Jesus.
And so we can be transformed here in this place and each time we leave here we have strengthen our spiritual life so we can be closer to the footsteps of Jesus. We can go into the secular world with something more than it can offer because we go into the world hand in hand with God. It is that spirituality that lets us see the world in a more hopeful way.
When the Magi arrived at the stable, Jesusí homeland was in turmoil. Hope was at a premium. Despair was everywhere. But the Magi did not return to their homeland with this despair. They returned with the hope and joy that a new, better, more compassionate age was possible.
And so we go into the world, if we embrace God with us, Emmanuel, with hope and joy.† But unlike the Magi who faced a hostile king and a despairing world, we face apathy and selfishness.† I find that many people, particularly of my adult childrenís age have shown no interest in church. If I bring up the issue, they brush it off or if itís someone who does not know our denomination may attempt a case against church because of the many vile statements made by a small minority of so-called Christians that they hear or read in the media.
So if we were of the mind to evangelize people like some Christians do, I suspect we would be meant by ridicule and apathy. But that isnít our way. Rather people will know that we have been touched by God by how we interact with them and how our choices are made and where we stand on the critical issues of the age.
We go into the secular world as agents of Jesus. We need to practice what we preach, but not because we must, but because we want to. If we have faith and truly walk with Jesus, people will know that we are different and some will ask. That is Godís way of giving us the opportunity, not to evangelize or judge, but simply to explain.
Occasionally, you may find one who is seeking and wish to explore what you have. Thatís the chance to bring them here.
Now I donít cotton to evangelizing people. I think itís intrusive and rude. But when someone opens a door into their spirituality, Iíll decide to step through or not. But not to convince them or bully them into the church, but to listen to what their need or desire or hurt is. Then I try to say something meaningful and comforting, usual in spiritual words.
If that conversation develops a bit further, then more doors may open. I would never suggest they attend this or that parish. But overtime Ö and it takes time Ö as you and your correspondent talk together, you may find that it is appropriate and not intrusive to invite them to join you one Sunday.
But I think the opportunities are out there. We live in a very chaotic and difficult time. Many people are suffering. Many more are anxious for their livelihoods and their futures. We have much to offer spiritually in coping with these times. More than anything our faith promises hope and goodness.
In the movie of J. R. R. Tolkiens, story the Two Towers, the character Frodo is traveling to destroy a magical ring that is almost like cocaine: whoever wears it becomes addicted to it and will go to any lengths to keep it. With him is his friend Sam. The original owner of the ring is a dark evil shadow over the world and is conquering their land. He needs the ring to complete his conquest and has sent out evil to find Frodo and destroy him. Frodo has reached the point where is succumbing to the ring and feels he cannot go on. So Sam steps in:
Frodo: I can't do this, Sam.
Sam: I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for. †[The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)]
And that is what our faith teaches us: to never give up on hope and goodness. We will never know if the Magi were real people or just characters in a metaphor designed to announce that Jesus came not just to his own people but to the whole world. We do know that Jesus, even in his very small country, reached out to foreigners, such as the Centurion. We know that St. Paul preached to the Greeks. And tradition has St. Thomas going East following the footsteps of the Magi Ö and of Jesus. His church still exists in India.
And like these historic figures, we are also the messengers of Jesus. We offer the message not so much in direct words, but how we live and work and commit.
It is not so much what we say, but what we do and how we behave and how we accept people that brings the message of Jesus to our apathetic and anxious age. No matter whether a colleague or friend ever shows up in our pews, we are called to offer them the hope and goodness that Jesus brings.
Think about it Ö
Godís grace and love be with you Ö