Isaiah 60:1-9; Psalm 19:1-4; Matthew 2:1-12
Reverend Dr. Louise Barger
January 6 is the observance of the Day of Epiphany, the Day of Discovery, on the Christian calendar when the Magi came to Bethlehem to worship Jesus. Today we celebrate with the rest of the Christian Church on the Sunday closest to that date.
Matthew recorded the events of that visit for all who would read his Gospel writing, but the prophet Isaiah foretold what would happen some 600 years earlier. Matthew validated what Isaiah had written. This Jesus was the Promised Messiah.
While in our Christmas pageants the Magi always arrive at the manger to greet the birth of the baby Jesus, it was not that way in real life. It would be some two years before they would find their way to Bethlehem to the house where Mary and Joseph were living with little Jesus.
Who were these men that we sometimes call the Magi and sometimes call the Wise Men? We do know some things about them and we can infer some other things about them from the context in which the story was recorded. We read that they were from the East. They would have been traveling from east of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Babylon was East of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
During the time of Isaiah, 600 years prior to this visit, the Jews were carried off into captivity to Babylon. When Persia conquered Babylon, the Persian king permitted any Jew who wished to return to Judah to do so. Nehemiah was one of the first to return and many followed, but many did not. Many of the Jews had grown up in Babylon and it was their home. Many had made a successful life for themselves in Babylon, and so they did not return to their homeland.
Those who remained in Babylon did retain their worship as Jews. It was in Babylon that the Babylonian Talmud was written. It contained the record of generations of debate by the rabbis about the Law and philosophy and biblical interpretation. It contained a multitude of instructions for such things as the celebration of the holidays, the observance of the Sabbath, and synagogue rituals.
These men would have been Jews who knew the writings of what we call the Old Testament. They knew the prophecies of Isaiah.
These men were also among the scientists of their time. They were astronomers and astrologers who studied the stars in the heavens and interpreted the meaning of what they observed. Part of their interpretation would have been used to establish dates for religious observances.
One night these men the star for which generations of God’s people had waited. One can only imagine their response! They must have watched night after night to be sure that they were seeing what they thought they were seeing. These men had studied the heavens, interpreting what they saw, and perhaps never having imagined that they would find that one star that would fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy.
What should they do about what they have observed? Yes, generations have waited for 600 years for this revelation, but now that the star has arrived, there are some challenges about what they should do next. As almost anyone would respond, they wanted to go and see this fulfillment of prophecy which has happened.
BUT, it will be a long journey; it will be a difficult journey; they must decide upon appropriate gifts to present to this King; scheduling and details are always a challenge.
To their credit, they decided that seeing Jesus, worshiping Jesus, is the most important thing that they will ever do, no matter the challenges. And as God will do, when we prepare ourselves and when we commit ourselves to the task to which we are called by God, God is able to bring about something magnificent even out of the most challenging of circumstances.
How many Magi came to worship Jesus? Because Matthew identifies three gifts, there is the assumption by most traditions that there were three men, but in some traditions there is the belief the there were twelve. The number three has been firmly fixed in the mind of American Christians by John Henry Hopkins, an Episcopal clergyman who, in 1857, wrote the famous Christmas carol, We Three Kings of Orient Are.
The context of the story would lead us to know that there was a large caravan of travelers who came from the East. Three or more prominent men would never have started out across the desert alone. They would have needed provisions and
helpers and security for the journey.
These travelers with their caravan of camels must have created quite a stir when they arrived at Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah. They came into the city asking for directions about where to find the baby who had been born as King of the Jews. To the Jews in Jerusalem who were looking for a Messiah who would overthrow the Roman rule of their country, this must have caused great questioning and great excitement.
The Magi are finally directed to the palace of the Roman king, Herod, who, upon hearing their story, began immediately to plot about how to do away with this “Pretender” to the throne that he now occupied.
Picture what a contrast it would have been to be present at that time of worship with the young child Jesus as compared to being aware of what was being planned in the royal palace!
In the home of Mary and Joseph the Magi bow in worship and present their gifts. In the royal palace Herod is preparing to send a contingent of soldiers into Bethlehem and the surrounding area to murder every boy child two years old and younger. Herod will give up his power to no one. That tragedy will come to be known in history as the Slaughter of the Innocents. Even though they are Jewish children, they will become known as the first Christian martyrs.
Events and circumstances have a way of revealing who we really are. They also have a way of revealing how committed we are to doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do. The Magi followed the leading of God and departed Bethlehem without going back through Jerusalem to tell Herod where they had found Jesus. They would go back to Babylon. Matthew records nothing more about them. There are various historical traditions about how they were involved in the spread of Good News of Jesus. Only in eternity will we learn how their encounter with Jesus changed their lives and the lives of those who they later influenced.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Herod is revealed as the narsacistic egomaniac who loves power above all else. He will direct the massacre of some 14,000 male infants. It is impossible to imagine the weeping and the life-long grief of those parents whose children were killed in their presence and left for them to bury.
Herod would eventually die a miserable death in 4 AD. All of the monuments that he built to himself have centuries ago disappeared.
The third person in the story is Joseph. Once again, Joseph becomes the hero of the story because he follows the directions that he receives from God. In the middle of the night he takes Mary and Jesus into Egypt for safety. They become refugees. They will return to Nazareth after Herod dies.
There is a fourth group of people in this story. It is all of us who, generation after generation, will read Matthew’s account. We have all heard of the birth of the Christ child. We have been celebrating that birth. For most of us, if not all of us, there was a moment when we bowed our hearts before Jesus and invited him to be the Lord of our life. I invite you to think of that moment or that process that enabled you to arrive at that decision. As the visit was for the Magi, that moment in our lives was only the beginning of a journey. Following Christ is the journey of a lifetime.
In the beginning of a New Year we often make resolutions. Resolutions are commitments that we make with ourselves, or with others, about our hopes and dreams for the future. Perhaps the foundation of all of our resolutions as individuals and as a congregation in this New Year could be that we grow personally in our relationship with Christ, and, as together we celebrate, this simply can’t be just the anniversary of this church. We will seek to know the vision of Christ for the future of her ministry in this community and in the world.
May God guide us on our journey.